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Viva Las Vegas or Bust

UCLA should be favorite in the Las Vegas Invitational.

Norman Powell could be our SHORTEST starter next year.
Norman Powell could be our SHORTEST starter next year.
Stephen Dunn

We will continue on our efforts to show how Coach Steve Alford has a lot of opportunities to immediately improve on Ben Howland. Today it is about some seemingly smaller issues that can be important long term and for this season to Alford.

While most focus on the big picture that in his last five years Howland missed the NCAA tournament twice and only won two games the three times he went, the fact is he also did terribly in preseason tournaments. It has been so bad in recent years I have feared for Tydides running out of images of train wrecks. While Alford's big goals must include reaching THE tournament every year, a small part of that effort must be doing better in other tournaments during the season. This makes making THE tournament easier and also playing in the big dance easier as you will get a better seed.

A preseason tournament is an important opportunity for Alford to showcase his brand of UCLA basketball and make an early statement the Howland years are behind us. For since 2008-9 in true road tournament game (not goofy home tournament games that don't count):

  • Howland went 3-9 in preseason tournaments the last five years
  • 33% of his wins coming over Division II teams and the other two wins over Southern Illinois and Georgia were teams that finished the season with losing records that year.
  • Put more simply Howland's teams were an embarrassment to start the year in preseason tournaments.

1. Time to Live Up to Preseason Hype.

Now comes Steve Alford's opportunity: The Las Vegas Invitational.

The UCLA Bruins, the most storied team in the history of college basketball with 11 national championships, the Missouri Tigers of the Southeastern Conference and the Nevada Wolf Pack highlight the field for the 13th Annual Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational.

Also in the highly-competitive tourney are Northwestern, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Morehead State, Indiana University - Purdue University of Indianapolis (IUPUI) and Gardner Webb University.

Last year UCLA was in a cross country tournament in Brooklyn that featured the consensus preseason #1 Indiana and what turned out to be a good Georgetown team. This year UCLA is, at least according to some ridiculous early rankings, ranked #22 here and #24 here which means we are only the ranked team in the Las Vegas Invitational. We should be the favorite.

Furthermore, UCLA will not play Missouri until the finals, the only other team on paper that looks threatening. Missouri loses four starters off their team that almost beat UCLA: star Laurence Bowers, UCLA killer at Pepperdine and Missouri Keion Bell, the kid who had a career assist game Phil Pressey, and dominate inside force Alex Oriakhi. That possible game looks easier as well.

Bottom line Alford can instantly improve on Howland by simply winning a relatively easy looking tournament.

2. Tournament Helper

One third of Howland pre-season tournament wins in the last five years came because of a four letter word to Howland: ZONE. UCLA beat Georgia last year when they went to a zone in the second half. Howland hated zone and would rarely play it the rest of the year. On the other hand, Alford while no Jim Boeheim, is also not Ben Howland in that he will play zone. How much is the question.

This Vegas tournament may be the first test. Playing games back-to-back days is tough. Playing back-to-back games without a true point guard defender may be tougher. But on the other hand UCLA shortest rotation player is 6'3" Bryce Alford. Let me say that again, 6'3" is the shortest player. Length is helpful in a zone and UCLA is a long team with potential a 6'5" Jordan Adams and 6'4" LaVine or Powell at the top of the zone.

Also, zone may be very helpful to two of UCLA bigs. Tony Parker has one very worrying statistic, his fouls per minute. Tony fouled a lot last year; zone would really help him and protect him a bit from some of those fouls.

Kyle "slo-mo" Anderson may be a three on defense. Many teams UCLA will face next year will be playing three guards, thus slo-mo in man defense will have problems with quickness on D in that he will really be playing a guard. Now in a zone, that switches. The long 6'9" Anderson would be down low in a zone where he can get steals, rebound and seemingly be more effective. I will not forget how ASU killed UCLA the first game when they made their power forward three point threat Jonathan Gilling a passer which dragged Kyle away from the basket and destroyed our rebounding. It seems UCLA needs Kyle inside. Could be wrong as Parker could change things but at least at times UCLA should play zone.

3. Another Reason why Ten is the Perfect Number

Noah Allen is the forgotten scholarship kid for this year team. He seems likely to be the ninth man. This means he will likely be most important in practice and at times when UCLA has to go deeper into their bench like in tournaments. But let's talk about that first reason, practice. Another problem with Howland in recent years is we did not have enough players to have a decent 5 on 5 practice. If you have doubts on that let me give you one quick example. UCLA's ninth man last year was Sooren Derboghosian. Not knocking him but the drop off from Tony Parker (the eighth man) and Sooren was huge. Sooren played one meaningful minute last year (when a game was not already over) against USC in the first half and promptly committed a foul.

I am not trying to knock Sooren. Walk- ons like Sooren do contribute and Sooren works hard. But the fact remains scholarship players are on a different level. Practicing against them in practice is essential.

Howland desperately tried to fill this end of the bench scholarship with disastrous results. Howland last recruits in his last three seasons were:

  • 2010-11Matt Carlino. Thought he was a UCLA point guard, Howland thought he was a practice player. Howland talked the kid out of his senior season of high school. Transferred during the season.
  • 2011-12 D'End Parker. Parker actually started a game for UCLA in his brief time at UCLA. He also became hurt with a mysterious injury and then left. Howland recruited him despite never having seen him play. He went on to a good year for USF BUT was just dismissed for "for conduct detrimental to the program."
  • 2012-13 Tony Parker. Obviously the highest rated of the group. How many times last season was it rumored Tony was gone? Tony stayed but was publicly unhappy at times. And as I have said before, when Tony was recruited he figured not to play much last year as UCLA had Josh Smith, Anthony Stover, and maybe Travis Wear ahead of him at the five spot.

Alford really needs to get a tenth player but it needs to be a kid who will help in practice and in situations such as a pre-season tournament when you are playing back-to-back days. He needs a kid with the right attitude. I really think it is more important to get someone with the right attitude as the tenth man than what position they play. Time is almost out.

So again, Alford has opportunities to immediately improve on Howland. The cupboard is not bare. But nothing is a lock; it will take a good coach.

Will UCLA be rolling hot in Vegas or will they crap out? Either way will be a test of Steve Alford.

Go Bruins and Happy Mother's Day.