The pressure is only mounting on Steve Alford as he enters Year 4. Shortly after last season ended, a plane flew a banner near UCLA’s Westwood campus calling for the coach’s firing. It was followed by a moving truck with a similar message on its side, camped out near Pauley Pavilion. Alford, amid public pressure to step down, returned a one-year contract extension he signed following his first season and penned an apology letter to fans. “Our record speaks for itself and is simply unacceptable,” he wrote.
On the heels of consecutive Sweet 16 trips, UCLA finished 15–17 for what marked only the program’s fourth losing season since John Wooden was hired in 1948. Yet, nearly everyone returns, and with a top-five recruiting class that includes possibly the top prospect in the country, hope remains for a quick fix.
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At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Steve Alford
2015-16 RECORD (PAC-12): 15–17 (6–12)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: None
2016-17 PREDICTION: Third in the Pac-12
F Jonah Bolden (4.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg)
F/C Tony Parker (12.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg)
The Bruins certainly boast some offensive firepower. Thomas Welsh developed into one of the more consistent players in country last season (11.2 ppg) and featured a mid-range jump shot that proved particularly steady. He shot 59.0 percent from the field and, according hoop-math.com, he connected on 50.3 percent of his jump shots (all from inside the arc). The 7-foot center’s high release point helps, making it tough to block.
The Bruins must replace the two players who provided a presence on the low post. Tony Parker, who started 69 games over the last three seasons and paired with Welsh in a “big-big” lineup, graduated, and Jonah Bolden left school in late July to pursue a professional career. Bolden started 10 of the final 11 games last season.
Alford likely will turn to incoming freshman T.J. Leaf, an athletic 6'9" power forward who was a McDonald’s All-American and adds some offensive skill. He scored 3,022 points in his high school career, the second most ever in the California Interscholastic Federation’s San Diego Section.
Gyorgy Goloman brings length off the bench at 6'11", but his development stalled as a sophomore when he missed the first 17 games because of a stress fracture in his leg. Ike Anigbogu could play his way into a prominent role as a freshman.
Come crunch time, there is little question about who hoists the last shot. It is Bryce Alford. The senior guard is often at his best in the closing seconds, most notably last January when he hit a game-winning, step-back 3-pointer to upset Arizona. But despite a handful of clutch moments, Alford shot only 38.5 percent and needed 12.8 shots to average his 16.1 points per game. He ended up shouldering most of the ball-handling duties, with Aaron Holiday saddled with a 4-to-3 assist-to-turner ratio as a freshman.
The arrival of Lonzo Ball, the Naismith Prep Player of the Year, might at last allow Alford to stick at the 2. Ball is highly regarded for his court vision and playmaking ability. The talented freshman is widely expected to be a one-and-done prospect and land in the top 10 in next year’s NBA Draft. He led Chino Hills High School to a California state title and undefeated season.
He will also have the chance to lean on Isaac Hamilton, who finished third in the Pac-12 in scoring last season (16.8 ppg). Hamilton was also efficient, shooting 47.2 percent and 37.7 percent from beyond the arc. With Ball’s arrival, Holiday will likely be the odd man out and slide into a sixth man role.
Prince Ali is an athletic wing player whom Steve Alford has compared to former guard Norman Powell because of his defense. His availability for the start of the season is in doubt due to a knee injury.
The heralded recruiting class saw one departure in the summer when Kobe Paras, a 6'6" guard from the Philippines who spent two high school seasons in Los Angeles, withdrew from UCLA. The university said he failed to meet academic standards contingent upon admission. But there’s plenty of talent left in the best class that Steve Alford has brought to UCLA, headlined by Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf. It was a point that Alford emphasized several times throughout last season.
Entering his final season with UCLA in 2012-13, Ben Howland loaded up on talent. A prized recruiting haul that included future NBA guards Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, and was ranked as high as No. 2 in the country by some recruiting services, brimmed with the promise of a quick turnaround. The Bruins made the NCAA Tournament after missing it the season before but were bounced in the first round. Howland was fired. If Alford is to avoid that fate, he will need to return to the Bruins to the postseason at the least. That likely won’t happen unless he can blend his group’s veteran experience with incoming talent and coax improved defensive play that has lately been an Achilles heel for the Bruins.