The conventional wisdom is this UCLA Bruins team is not as good as last year’s UCLA which only finished third in the Pac-12. Yet this year’s team should have a great shot at winning the Pac-12. There are a number of reasons for this and, in this post, I will explain while this year’s team is the best.
The Pac-12 is Down
Last year, the Pac-12 had three potential Final Four teams: UCLA, Arizona and Oregon, which made the Final Four. Those other potential Final Four teams finished ahead of UCLA in the Pac-12 last year. This year the Pac-12 is just not as good at the top. Thus, it follows UCLA does not have to be as good to win the Pac-12.
The Sword of Damocles is Hanging Over the Head of the Frontrunners
The teams that were supposed to be good before the season, Arizona and Southern Cal, have an FBI investigation hanging over their heads. At least, Southern Cal suspended one of the players involved, while Arizona is seemingly acting like nothing happened. More could come out, literally at any time. This could take the winds out of their sails and really mess them up. Even if it doesn’t, I would hope students would be obnoxious in pointing out how corrupt Arizona’s Coach Sean Miller and Southern Cal’s Andy Enfield are. This has and will impact them. How much remains to be seen.
But not just Arizona and Southern Cal are in trouble. The conference’s best coach* Dana Altman is also in trouble. While Altman arguably gets the most out of his players, there is a major asterisk next to him as he definitely cuts ethical corners. The NCAA has sanctioned his program and the penalties will be coming out. Any further investigation is likely to find more problems. I guess Altman is looking like a junior Larry Brown. He will get your team far but he will also get your team NCAA sanctions.
So, the favorites and the perennial frontrunner Oregon are all facing issues off-the-court that will cause problems for their programs this year.
Aaron Holiday is Clutch
Okay, Bruins fans, it is time to stop hating on Aaron Holiday, point guard. Holiday is a very good player and a Pac-12 level point guard. He is also human and not Lonzo Ball. The former showed in Holiday’s play in that the choke against Michigan was more the fault of Steve Alford for asking Holiday to play without rest. On the other side, Holiday took himself out for the stretch run against Kentucky and was great. Holiday is a great player to have the ball in his hands late in a game as long as he is not exhausted.
A few highlights:
v. Wisconsin: “The Bruins' sparkplug guard got a scooping layup to drop just before the final buzzer Tuesday night, capping an impressive one-man show down the stretch and giving No. 23 UCLA a 72-70 victory over Wisconsin in the third-place game of the Hall of Fame Classic.
v. Kentucky: “Holiday capped a 20-point performance with a pivotal driving scoop and two free throws in the final 33 seconds, and UCLA upset No. 7 Kentucky 83-75 on Saturday.”
Now, as far as Holiday not being Lonzo Ball, that’s like saying Kevin Love was no Bill Walton. Lonzo could get an assist with one pass off a defensive rebound. That is not normal. Holiday is more of a traditional drive and dish point guard. Holiday driving to the basket is an awesome force as shown above. It is up to Alford to take advantage of the passing part of it. For example, instead of having the poor outside shooting GG wait at the three-point line, have him roll to the basket.
UCLA is in good shape with Holiday at point during a game and in great shape down the stretch.
Three-point Shooting is Not Worse
Last year, everyone was marveling at our incredible three-point shooting. This year, we are almost as good, if (and that’s a big if) Alford uses everyone right. Take Jaylen Hands. Jaylen is not ready to be a point guard. He is too raw and out of control. But as a three-point shooting two guard, he is pretty damn good. He is currently shooting 44% compare that to Bryce Alford’s 43% last year.
Prince Ali is straight up better than Isaac Hamilton. Hamilton was suffering with a slump much of last year. Ali meanwhile has calmly been shooting an amazing 50% from three while Isaac only shot 36% from three.
Now all three of the fours in NO way compare to TJ Leaf, but that is not the right comparison. This year, our fours should generally not shoot threes. However, our five, should. Thomas Welsh is a legitimate threat from three. Welsh is shooting 46.2% from three compare to Leaf’s 46.6%.
The reality is UCLA can again be an elite three-point shooting team. It is just some things have to work a bit different to make that work.
The Defense is Better and Could be MUCH Better
At times this season, we have seen the best defense of any UCLA team during the Steve Alford era. This is not the old Steve Alford defense of either out-score the other team or hope they miss threes. This team puts athletes on the floor that can compete with any other team one-on-one at all positions except the four. After years of having bad athletes who did not commit effort to defense, such as Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton, or good athletes forced to cover people out of their position, such as Norman Powell covering a point or Lonzo Ball covering everyone from 1-4, we can match up man to man with any team. Even our weak position of power forward has the advantage of 15 fouls to give as the difference between GG, Alex Olesinski and Chris Smith is negligible. (And a crafty player like GG should be able to push the fouling envelope at home with some of the SPTR.)
Most important is a very smart center in Thomas Welsh. Welsh owns the defensive boards and plays very well without fouling. Welsh is currently averaging 10.7 rebounds per game which is more than even Kevin Love had in his year at UCLA. This is more impressive as Welsh spends much of his time on offense away from the boards. He may not be a great shot blocker, but he does a great job of getting a hand in the face and owning the paint with defensive rebounds.
So, even if the offense is not as good as last year, the defense can be better, possibly much better.
This team was running with Kentucky and can run with anyone. Only Thomas Welsh is not comfortable in the open court. If the game is up and down, we will do okay and our better defense will lead to better offense.
Okay, I am being glass is half full but I really feel UCLA can and should do better in the Pac-12 standings than last year. The talent and the breaks are there. Now, there are some caveats.
First is Arizona State. They are playing at an elite level right now and their offense is really good. My statement that there are no teams as good as last year in the Pac-12 may not be correct as Arizona State may be special and, so far this year, they have been. No one predicted this before the season. Will that bubble burst?
Second is Steve Alford has to adapt to this team’s talents. To his credit, he has focused on defense. Early in the season, the defense was awful against some really bad teams. Recently, for most of the games, it has been good. However, good defense is harder than good offense to play. Good defense has to be played constantly, on offense you can have great runs. Will Alford keep the Bruins dialed in on defense?
Third: Will Steve Alford adapt to player’s talent? Alford loves a stretch four, but he does not have one on the roster. If I am an opponent, I am daring GG and Chris Smith to shoot outside. Alex Olesinski is a mediocre three-point shooter but is not a threat off the dribble. This team does not have a Kevin Looney or TJ Leaf.
Fourth: Will Alford use his timeouts and bench well? I think UCLA can go small with Holiday, Ali, Hands all on the floor at once. Maybe even Wilkes at four. However, I know Aaron Holiday cannot play all 20 minutes in a second half. Alford has a lot of potential on this team, but he also has holes at power forward and backup point. He needs to use his timeouts and manage his team well to get them to their maximum potential.
Go Bruins! Win the Pac-12!