We're just a few days away from the exhibition opener vs. Azusa Pacific in Pauley this Friday. BN is previewing Bruin Hoops all week.
The PAC-12 Media Poll had the Bruins finishing fourth in the league. Other previews have had the Bruins anywhere between second and sixth. I don't see UCLA finishing ahead of Arizona or behind UC Berkeley, but we can reasonably debate places two through five.
Although the polls may be influenced by the loss of five players from last year and two that we counted on to suit up this season (Octeus and Bolden), at the end of the day, what matters are the nine scholarship players who are here and can play now and how they match up against the main competition (after Arizona) for the season: Utah, Colorado and Stanford.
Over the next few days, we'll analyze the Bruin personnel, opposition matchups, predict the game-by-game results, and finally reveal BN's expectations for the season.
Of course, BN has had you covered on the 2014-15 season since March. Follow these links if you want to brush up in-depth: First Preview-March 8, Weak PAC-12- May 8, Match-up with Arizona Including Jordan Adams-April 23, Bruins without Adams-April 28, Octeus to Start-July 9, Alford Interview-Sept 22, Alford Interview-Oct 14.
In Part 1, DCBruins and I tried to answer the "Big Questions." In Part 2, I discuss the rotation players, the likely sets on offense and defense, and the intangibles - leadership, progression and coaching up.
Point Guard - Bryce Alford (Starter), Isaac Hamilton (co-pg, starter in 3-guard lineup).
Point guard has been the most written about position: the recruiting misses (we'll see Jordan McLaughlin vs. USC and Josh Perkins vs. Gonzaga), the odd distribution of minutes in favor of Bryce Alford and at the expense of Kyle Anderson, Zach LaVine and Norman Powell, criticism from the national media and even NBA Coach Flip Saunders, and the failure to get transfer Jon Octeus accepted into a graduate program.
We are where we are now, but I'd feel better if there was one point guard on the bench. I would even take a Lazeric Jones - that's why Octeus was so important, starter or not, and it is an unforgivable mistake by the AD.
Isaac Hamilton is an ex-McDonalds All American who had to sit out a year after he reneged on his NLI with UTEP. He was a slashing 2 in high school, and like most elite college 2's at the tweener height, he wanted the chance to play point guard, and we've known the opportunity would be there, at least part-time, since last October. I watched Isaac at the open practice last year, and he did a good job covering Zach, Kyle and Jordan. He looked the part of an elite freshman: confident, knew where to be and able to penetrate on college players. However, count on a year of practice-only resulting in rust or jitters.
Since then, the pressure ratcheted up: first with when it became obvious that Zach LaVine would enter the draft, but Jordan Adam's last-second change of heart made this a mission impossible. Hamilton's being asked to do too much: playmaker, defender and scorer.
Steve Alford said scoring will have to be done by committee -- which is admitting to a problem. That's why I believe Isaac will have to be one of the top two scorers on the team, and Bryce Alford will have to do an adequate job as the primary play-maker.
That said, I see more downside than upside in the Bryce-at-point guard situation. The upside is that he's faced more criticism than any UCLA player in recent memory, arguably more than Reeves Nelson, Josh Smith and the Wears, and after having seven months to think about it, he adjusts accordingly. His father-coach did go out and get another point guard (Octeus), so one would hope: lesson learned. Further, the PAC-12 is does not boast numerous highly skilled, experienced point guards this season (Stanford's Chasson Randle and Oregon's combo guard Joseph Young), and Norman Powell would cover them anyway.
Unfortunately, a lot could go wrong: the skill-level simply isn't there (and the opposition strategy is to harrasss Bryce and Isaac full-court, wearing the whole team out), there is a team backlash against an attempt by Bryce to assume leadership, and his father again suppresses rotations that show promise (namely a big lineup or more minutes for Noah Allen).
Shooting Guard - Isaac Hamilton (starter), Bryce Alford and Norman Powell (starters in 3-guard lineup), Noah Allen (bench)
Norman Powell looks to be one of three non-Arizona PAC-12 POY candidates along with Stanford's Chasson Randle, Utah's Delon Wright and Oregon's Joseph Young (interestingly, NBADraft.net has Norman at #13, Wright at #27, Young at #53 and Randle not on the list --they've apparently forgotten about Arizona except for Stanley Johnson). NBCSports calls him one of their top five potential breakout stars for the year.
There would be no hope for the year if Norman couldn't cover the opposing pg. The big question is whether Norman will have a breakout offensive year. He said in an interview that he was working on the mechanics of his shot all summer. It looked nice except that it was slow-developing, almost releasing on the way down after hanging in the air -- not with the quickness and fluidity of Jordan Adams or Zach LaVine. However, he will face a big obstacle -- ask Jordan Adams. He will probably draw the opposing team's best perimeter defender. This is why a perimeter alternative has to develop -- most likely Hamilton if Alford has the ball in his hands.
Steve Alford has called Noah Allen a pleasant surprise at the start of practice. His development was derailed by a broken nose early last season. Besides giving minutes to short-handed rotations, the big hole that he can help fill will actually be at the 3. The team is not asking for the spectacular from Allen, just steady, mistake-free play, especially on defense.
Small Forward- Norman Powell (starter), Kevon Looney (starter at Power Forward), Noah Allen (bench), Gyorgy Goloman (bench)
The 3 is the second biggest position problem after point guard -- there isn't one! Get ready to cringe when Norman is spends more minutes this year than last in the back row of a 2-3 zone -- I will say that at least he knew where to stand compared to his teammates last year.
I don't know if Bolden could actually cover a college 3, but this is where he was needed. Kevon wants to play facing the basket and with the ball in his hands, so we'll see him there, but is there a viable lineup with only two guards?
The coach hasn't mentioned 6'9" Gyorgy Goloman at all except to say he likes to run. He's usually listed as a power forward, but he is a Euro-style player who runs, shoots from the perimeter, and doesn't appear to be a banger. Based on the dearth of updates, I don't expect to see him much this season.
Power Forward- Kevon Looney (starter), Wannah Bail (bench)
Besides Norman, I have the most confidence in Kevon Looney as a player who will meet expectations. The 6'9" Looney was the #7 ranked recruit in the nation, and had 11 rebounds and 8 points in 11 minutes at the last McDonald's All-American game (box score). Comparisons to Kyle are overblown, but Alford seems to have given Kevon the green light to dribble up court off the rebound. What I like most is his workman-like attitude. The rebounding and defensive struggles from the 4 and 5 might finally be over for the Bruins.
Like Noah Allen, Steve Alford recently called Wannah Bail a pleasant surprise. Bail was slowed by knee surgery in June 2013 and a follow-up scope before the Florida game at the end of last season. He looked completely lost when he did finally step on the court, and he ultimately disappeared from the rotation. I'm frankly hesitant to say Wannah has upside or is an ex-factor, but he's the second most athletic on the team behind Norman and he's rebound, defend and pass first like a 4 usually is. What is an x-factor for me is the emergence, in general, of a viable alternative to the three-guard starting lineup which keeps Looney in the game, reduces Bryce' minutes and lets Norman/Isaac rest. The alternative power forward would have to be Wannah or Tony Parker.
Center - Tony Parker (starter), Thomas Welsh (bench)
Tony Parker has been inconsistent. He had 16 points and 5 rebounds and was the last minute hero vs. Alabama, and he had 22 points and 7 rebounds vs. Stanford at Pauley. He owned Stanford center Stefan Nastic in both games, but UCLA lost the second Stanford game as, oddly, Alford didn't go back to Parker nearly enough. This gives me confidence that Stanford, having lost Powell and Huestis, should not be a problem for the Bruins. But Tony had more disappearing acts than positive impact with the two main problems being foul trouble and lack of fundamental rebounding skills -- boxing out. I expect marginal improvement as Tony appears to have lost more weight and he's referred to Coach Schilling's help in positioning to avoid foul trouble, but I've heard nothing to make me believe he will make a big leap.
Thomas Welsh, at 7'0" and four inches taller than Parker, is my number one x-factor. He's a skilled and smart player: boxes out, plays defense, doesn't foul, hits his free throws, has a mini-hook, finds the open man cutting or on the perimeter -- you name it. But he has a major issue - his plodding style getting up and down the court and covering a mobile center. I've seen his running style before; it usually comes from having to adjust to his height quickly or coming to the game late. In his case, he comes from a big, athletic family, so I can't explain it, but if he turns the corner athletically, he's the best center in the league -- I think and hope it's just a matter of time.
DCBruins said that Alford's drumbeat on the up-tempo game is the voice of desperation. There's something to that -- let me add my own take. First, Guerrero probably made that a secret provision of his contract, but seriously, what choice is there? If you don't have confidence in your point guard or your perimeter shooting, you either try to outrun your opponent or feed it into the post. I like all three bigs (Looney, Parker and Welsh) with their back-to-the-basket, but the entry pass seems to have become a lost art in the college game (due to the three-point shot and the lack of dominant back-to-the-basket players at every level). At least Alford does say that he has to find some balance, but make no mistake, the Bruins will run.
I think the balance will depend on Welsh: is he worth slowing down for (or are they forced due to his lack of athleticism)? Looney can play front or back facing, but he's rather run and attack facing the rim, and although Parker has good post moves (though he doesn't pass), history has already shown that Alford won't change the game plan for him.
Let's see how much the motion offense is tweaked (he calls it a 3-out, 2-in motion, but there's also the opposite, 2-out, 3-in), and if Alford finds the right balance with the post game. Showing two very different looks to the opposition would cause confusion, and could be the x-factor that makes this a good team.
I do think the defense will be stouter; there was nowhere to go except up. In Alford's mind, he had to de-emphasize defense last year for two reasons: (1) he inherited a talented but flawed team for which he needed to achieve a quick buy-in based on offensive freedom and (2) he thinks he was putting a product on the floor that would attract elite national recruits. But you still have to win. This year, he's starting to talk up the amount of time they are spending on defense in practice.
Unfortunately, with the personnel losses, there's still only may only be 60% of the talent on the floor at once to have a good man-to-man defense. Alford says he will use the zone 30-50% of the time. Again, it's all relative. The PAC-12 doesn't have an abundance of perimeter shooters. I would keep it simple. Although three guards screams out 3-2, I wouldn't overextend - -I'd pack it in until someone proves they can rain threes.
The ¾ zone press hasn't been talked about lately, but I do expect to see it. The idea is mainly to take about 10 seconds off the shot clock, and to a lesser extent (since they don't aggressively trap) generate steals. Jordan Adams was the steal man -- Norman was third behind Anderson. The personnel isn't there to make this very successful, but I still expect there to be a low-energy press.
Aside from last year, Ben Howland's 2012-13 was one of the worst defensive teams I've seen at UCLA, but they did improve. Even though Ben abandoned the zone, he put in a dumbed-down MTM with minimal help and double-team. Jordan was fully engaged when he needed to be, and even Shabazz Muhammad showed some ability to simply stay in front of his man. This is all to say that improvement is possible, and the coach and team are saying the right things thus far.
Where will the leadership come from for this team? The obvious answer is Norman Powell, the senior who is expected to have a breakout year. However, as Steve Alford said, Norman is quiet and so is the team as a whole. The next likely candidate is Bryce Alford -- a potentially polarizing figure. (As an aside, Kentucky faces this every year, and UCLA may experience the same Kentucky-style issue next year if the recruiting class of four to five 4/5-stars materializes.) Kyle was the enforcer last year, but what happens if a series of possessions or whole games goes bad? Does the team implode?
The potential lack of strong leadership coming from within the team begs for better coaching and closer supervision from the staff. With one notable exception (LaVine), last year's team expressed affinity for the staff in glowing terms.That's great, but there were too many let downs last year: losing to Stanford and Washington State with the regular season championship on the line and losing to Oregon with Kyle and Jordan suspended for the game. Steve Alford had a picnic with rap music at his crib before the PAC-12 Tournament last season, and that loosened the players up to where they could win that tournament. The theme from last season, in general, was (leaving aside the distribution of minutes and misuse of LaVine): this is a loose, running, offensive team, and we're not going to sweat the other stuff.
This team has less talent and experience than last year. The feel-good vibe alone won't work. This won't be a season where the team expects to win simply by outscoring the opponent. Defense and rebounding take discipline. That has to come from coaching.
Most of the analysts, in their previews, have said the Bruins have the most pure talent in the league after Arizona, and yet they rank the Bruins as low as sixth in the league. Then perhaps the biggest point to make in all these previews is: the difference between fifth and second place in the league will be coaching. Can Alford "coach up"? Can he make everyone "do more" as he said in a recent interview, and this includes emphasizing defense, making the most of the three or four bench players and finding the alternative, perhaps the elusive, big rotation. There's will be little to no margin of error this year, and so success means giving the minutes to whatever the ultimate best rotations turn out to be, great game prep and smart decisions on the court. How about that for an x-factor?
Summing It Up
UCLA plays for league and national championships. Realistically, this year we're playing for second place in the PAC-12 (expectations and forecasts to come). The biggest questions for the team are:
- Is the point guard situation adequate?
- Will the defense and rebounding improve enough to offset the loss of offensive production?
- Can another successful rotation emerge as an alternative to the three guard lineup?
- Will the starters wear down in the late innings of games and over the course of the long season?
For keys and x-factors, I could again list every player and say he has to do more this year or if he is new, he has to meet or beat expectations, but here are my top keys and x-factors:
- Welsh or Bail emerges has a starter (or at least 25 mpg) establishing a viable alternative to the three-guard lineup, or simply just being better than Tony Parker. Having both a running game balanced with an interior game will make this team hard to plan for and defend.
- Isaac Hamilton scores 15-20 ppg. Or, he excels as a play-maker and defender.
- Two players from Allen, Bail and Golomon, in addition to Welsh, form an eight man rotation. The big lineup helps the starters get rest, but we need more than a seven rotation players especially at the 3 and since Tony Parker has been foul-prone.
- Steve Alford is able to thread the needle through what promises to be a tough season. He coaches each player up, exerts discipline and doesn't make the in-game mistakes from last year.