This is UCLA, and as Steve Alford enters his third season at the helm of the program with 11 NCAA championships, the pressure is on to move past the Sweet 16 following consecutive regional semifinal appearances.
As the Bruins aim higher entering the 2015-16 season, they’re aided by the fact they return plenty of able bodies. The 11 scholarship players on the roster represent the most Alford has had since he arrived in 2013.
The hope in Westwood is that the Bruins can find the right blend of experience and incoming freshman talent. “I think we’re right there, knocking on the door of really making a special run,” junior guard Bryce Alford says.
Pac-12 predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
When it comes to replacing first-round draft pick Kevon Looney, UCLA will need to do so in two primary ways.
It must replace Looney, the rebounder, whose 9.2 rebounds per game were second most in the Pac-12. The logical candidate is center Tony Parker, a 6'9", 260-pound senior who averaged 8.3 rebounds himself during the NCAA Tournament. Parker, once a top recruit out of Georgia, struggled early in his career, but he emerged as a quality big man a year ago, his first as a full-time starter.
Center Thomas Welsh averaged 15 minutes per game off the bench as a freshman and will help on the glass as well, likely seeing increased minutes after averaging 9.7 rebounds per 40 minutes. The 7-footer got additional experience in the summer playing for the U.S. U19 team at the FIBA World Championships.
As far as replacing Looney’s offensive production, part of that will fall to Jonah Bolden, a five-star prospect from Australia who was a part of UCLA’s decorated 2014 recruiting class. Bolden was ineligible to play last season, though he practiced with the team upon his arrival last January until he was sidelined due to knee surgery in May. The 6'10" Bolden is an inch taller than Looney, can score in a variety of ways and boasts a nice jump shot. If healthy, he’s the best bet to start at the 4, paired with Parker.
Forward György Golomán and junior college transfer Ikenna Okwarabizie add some depth to the frontline.
UCLA Bruins Facts & Figures
Record: 22-14, 11-7 Pac-12
Postseason: Sweet 16
Consecutive NCAAs: 3
Pac-12 Projection: 4
Postseason Projection: Second Round
The question of whether Bryce Alford should remain the Bruins’ starting point guard has been a divisive one through two seasons. He is a shooter first, and a streaky one. Alford shot 25 percent or worse in five Pac-12 games (four regular season, one tournament) as a sophomore, including an 0-of-10 performance at Utah. But he still finished second on the team in scoring, was its best 3-point threat and improved as a passer with better court awareness.
The arrival of freshman Aaron Holiday, the younger brother of Jrue Holiday, gives UCLA some options. Holiday is a skilled ball handler and distributor, and remains a logical candidate to start at point guard, thereby allowing Alford to slide over to the 2-guard spot, arguably his more natural position. Holiday could free up Isaac Hamilton — who split duties with Alford at point guard at the start of last season — to be more of a slasher, a role he found to his liking during the stretch run. The Bruins will need to replace the scoring of Norman Powell, whose 16.4 points per game led the team, and using Alford and Hamilton along the wings would give them more space to operate.
Incoming freshman Prince Ali, a “big, athletic guard who has tremendous versatility” according to the elder Alford, should provide additional scoring. The four-star prospect and McDonald’s All-American averaged 22.5 points per game as a high school senior. Ali is also a candidate to start, especially should Alford remain at point guard. Noah Allen, a 6'6" swingman, provides depth. He averaged just over 10 minutes per game as a sophomore last season.
Key Losses: F Kevon Looney, G Norman Powell
Top Players: G Aaron Holiday, G Bryce Alford, G Isaac Hamilton, F Jonah Bolden, F/C Tony Parker
The two freshman guards, both four-star prospects, figure to receive extended minutes right away. Aaron Holiday could end up as the starting point guard. Prince Ali, whose scoring and driving ability are reminiscent of Norman Powell, should be in the backcourt rotation as well and potentially start. Alex Olesinski is a versatile big man who can shoot, with a nice touch around the perimeter and the ability to guard multiple positions. Junior-college transfer Ikenna Okwarabizie adds depth and size.
A deep roster gives UCLA hope that it might not only finish at the top of a wide-open Pac-12 but also make a deep tournament run in Year 3 under Steve Alford. The Bruins have not advanced past the Sweet 16 since 2008, when they made the last of three consecutive Final Four appearances. If Alford, who is 50–23 in his first two seasons, can successfully pair the veterans — three returning starters — with a top-25 recruiting class, UCLA might have a chance to meet those expectations.