There is reason for optimism this season for UCLA basketball. In a pair of “top 10 posts” I will list reasons why this could be Steve Alford best season at UCLA or another disappointment that will conclusive prove he is not a UCLA level coach. Today, why this should be his best season and his first Pac-12 regular season title.
10. Alford “got lucky” with the other Pac-12 teams
UCLA is ranked #18 national and predicted third in the Pac-12. But really on the latter UCLA is in arguably the best shape of any predicted third place program in Pac-12 history. Both Arizona and Southern Cal had assistant coaches involved in the FBI recruiting scandals. At a minimum, Arizona and Southern Cal will face more media scrutiny and the most hostile road crowds of recent memory. At a maximum, both teams could be facing heavy sanctions. Regardless, UCLA has an opportunity in this most unusual season.
9. Kris Wilkes
For the last three years, the starting three for UCLA Basketball has been Isaac Hamilton. While the streaky Hamilton was a force at times on offense, on defense, he was a liability. In Hamilton, UCLA had a slow, weak rebounding two guard playing three. This hurt in the bottom of the zone, so much so that UCLA was forced to play goofy zone defenses such as Welsh and Parker down low or Norman Powell, a very good defensive guard down low in the zone. In his other season, Steve Alford’s three was even slower than Hamilton, either David Wear or Kyle Anderson. In reality, that season there was no “three” on either offense or defense.
Kris Wilkes gives Steve Alford his first legitimate small forward for his time at UCLA.
8. Defensive guards
In one of his more infamous statements, after the loss to Kentucky in the tournament, LaVar Ball talked about UCLA being slow from too many white guys. His statement was wrong on many levels.
However, the combination of Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton did give UCLA a very slow and weak defensive backcourt. The reality was Lonzo was the only member of the three guards to even have a shot at playing a reasonably quick guard. That’s not true anymore. With Jaylen Hands and Aaron Holiday, UCLA has potentially the best pair of defensive guards in the Alford era. No more will the guard spot be a liability on defense.
7. Alford, the shooting coach
The biggest worry this season may be the outside shooting. Last year, the three point shooting ability was seriously off the charts. Shoot, the starting four shot 46% from three! But there is reason for optimism here. Some of Steve Alford’s best coaching has been improving the three-point strokes of his stars. I could argue the best player on his three NCAA teams all benefited from Steve Alford coaching on shooting. Kyle Anderson, Norman Powell and, yes, Lonzo Ball all came to UCLA with problems with their three-point shot, all three improved noticeably. While it may not be the amazing offense of last year, Alford’s UCLA history lends some reason for optimism on his ability to teach three point shooting.
6. Aaron Holiday is a junior
If there was a player who could benefit from more experience it is Holiday. Holiday has the ability to take a game over, but he also has a tendency to be out of control. A focused, experienced Holiday could be one of the best players in Pac-12. Holiday has pro level talent, but, last year, the pro scouts agreed that he was not ready. This is Holiday’s chance to prove he has not just the heritage and ability to be great, but can put all together for a season.
5. Thomas Welsh is a senior
Every year, Thomas has improved. What will he add this year? He has been working on his three point shot. A better post-up game could also be in the works. Welsh has been a joy to watch improve every season and there is no reason to think this one will be different.
4. Bryce Alford is gone
The late Al McGuire said years ago: "Your son has to be the best player on the team, or the worst player on the team, can't be in between." Bryce was neither the best or the worst. Regardless of how you feel about Bryce the player, Bryce the coach’s son was an issue. How big is debatable but, at a minimum, opposing fans can no longer yell “Daddy’s Boy.”
3. Alford’s most balanced team
This is the first time in the Alford era UCLA has players who fit their position and can legitimately play it both ways. His first UCLA team had three fours on defense (Kyle Anderson and the Wear Twins) and two off guards (Norman Powell and Jordan Adams). His next team had no three on defense and no true point guard on offense. The next year was the worst (and the record showed it) where UCLA had zero power forwards and spent much of the year playing two centers (Thomas Welsh and Tony Parker). Last year was better but, on defense, UCLA was forced to play a defensive three (want him near the boards) Lonzo Ball on opposing points because the other guards were defensive liabilities. For the first time in the Alford era, UCLA has five players who can play their positions both ways.
For the first time in recent memory, there is legitimate competition at positions. Yes, Gyorgy Goloman is a safe choice to start at four to begin the season but Cody Riley is not far behind and already has a college-ready body. There is even a legitimate longshot in 6’9” Chris Smith seems like the possible stretch four that Alford likes (even though he is listed as a guard). Or, how about the two guard, the oft injured Prince Ali, has been forgotten, but he was a highly ranked high school recruit. And assuming #6 in this optimistic post, UCLA has two guys who get be playing some minutes at point in the NBA in a few years. For the first time in the Alford era, the starting lineup may change for reasons other than injury.
1. Finally, a defense to go with the offense.
Alford is coming off his best season with one of the best offensivee teams in college basketball in recent memory. This year is potentially his best defensive team and it is not close. If Alford can keep the offense running at a high level, a good defense could take UCLA far.
Go Bruins! Win the Pac-12.