Steve Alford faces a critical sixth season in Westwood
Despite a loss to St. Bonaventure in the NCAA Tournament’s First Four, it was a relatively enjoyable offseason for embattled coach Steve Alford. He saw three players return to school after testing draft waters, inked a stellar recruiting class, produced an NBA first-rounder and was able to stay under the radar on campus thanks to the splashy hire of Chip Kelly as the Bruins’ football coach.
All these positive vibes, however, are accompanied by raised expectations for 2018-19 as UCLA is considered to be one of the favorites for its first regular-season conference crown since 2013. Whether Alford can get the most out of his extremely young yet talented team is up in the air, but for the first time in a while, there’s a different level of optimism around the Bruins.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Steven Alford
2017-18 RECORD (PAC-12): 21-12 (11-7)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to St. Bonaventure 65-58 in the First Four
F Gyorgy Goloman (7.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg)
G Aaron Holiday (20.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 5.8 apg)
C Thomas Welsh (12.6 ppg, 10.8 rpg)
Thanks to the Bruins’ length, this has a chance to be one of the more imposing teams in the country on both ends of the court, as eight players on the roster are 6'8" or taller. The frontcourt will be anchored by McDonald’s All-America center Moses Brown. The 7'1" freshman isn’t quite the kind of polished offensive threat who usually occupies the position, but he should instantly provide plenty of defense as a shot blocker and bring enough athleticism to clean up misses at the rim. Fellow top recruit Shareef O’Neal, son of NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, announced in late September that he would miss the 2018-19 season due to a heart ailment.
Other frontcourt options include 6'10" redshirt freshmen Jalen Hill and Cody Riley, who generated headlines last summer when they were suspended all season for an incident in China. Alex Olesinski and Chris Smith are the veterans of the group and should provide some key minutes at the two forward spots, while freshman Kenny Nwuba could spell Brown and Hill at center.
First-round pick Aaron Holiday has moved on, so it’s safe to say that Jaylen Hands is running the show offensively. He had a solid debut campaign last season (9.9 ppg, 2.6 apg) but didn’t quite live up to the hype as the program’s next great guard. He flirted with staying in the draft but smartly returned to UCLA to develop further, and he has all the tools to turn into a solid perimeter defender who can run the offense smoothly and get everybody involved.
How far this team ultimately goes could come down to Kris Wilkes. The Bruins’ second-leading scorer (13.7 ppg) and rebounder (4.9 rpg) a year ago, he came close to turning pro before being persuaded to return for another season. He will likely float between small forward and guard, and if he can continue to clean up on the glass and develop his 3-point game further, it’s not a stretch to say an All-Pac-12 nod could be in store. Given all the youth around Wilkes, don’t discount his leadership ability as one of the few starters back to have logged significant minutes.
Junior Prince Ali will be counted on at shooting guard after showing flashes down the stretch last year coming off a knee injury. Four-star freshmen Jules Bernard, David Singleton and Tyger Campbell were all key members of a top-five class and arrive with a chance to push for playing time as well.
It might be a stretch to think the Bruins could go from First Four to Final Four, but there is quite a bit of upside with this group as Alford enters a critical sixth season in Westwood. If talent can triumph over youth and the team develops some consistency, a Pac-12 title and solid run in March aren’t out of the question.
Postseason Prediction: Two and out
Pac-12 Prediction: 3rd