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How to Fix UCLA Basketball

UCLA is a top team in the Pac-12. Steve Alford can and needs to fix them now.

NCAA Basketball: Colorado at UCLA
When Wilkes is missing threes, UCLA is in trouble
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

On January 8, I wrote about UCLA Basketball’s Path to the Pac-12 Title. I did not think we would take advantage of the path, but I also did not think at home to Colorado is where we would fail. I think our NCAA tournament chances could now be in doubt unless some things are fixed. In order of importance and ease, here are my suggestions.

1. Kris Wilkes is the X factor.

Kris Wilkes is 4-22 or 18% from three in our 5 losses, or worse 11% if you take out the Stanford loss which he fouled out of and missed the end and OTs. Meanwhile, he is 22-55 or 40% from three in all the other games. Kris Wilkes hitting from three is a key to our offense. Since the win against Kentucky, Wilkes has scored in double digits every game including 20 against Kentucky, 21 against Washington and 19 against Utah. All games in which UCLA scored and did a reasonable or good job on defense. In addition to fouling out in the Stanford game, Wilkes only scored 10 in the loss to Colorado.

Suggestion: Call some plays for Wilkes. Post Wilkes up if he is against a guard. In other words, involve Wilkes more in the set offense. Wilkes is the best combination of size, speed and strength on the team and may have the highest ceiling of anyone on the team. He is not the best player now, but he may be the key.

2. Recognize that Aaron Holiday is human.

Aaron Holiday is shooting 28-49 (57%) in the first of a pair of Pac-12 games. He is shooting 14-36 (38%) in the second of the pairs. In the first of the pair of Pac-12 games, he has 13 assists and 4 turnovers and, in the second of the pairs, he has 14 assists and 16 turnovers. He has played every minute besides getting rests in blowouts at the end of games and, literally, a couple minutes otherwise.

Suggestion: Steve Alford, you can’t play Aaron Holiday that many minutes. It has a cost. We don’t always lose, but Aaron’s play suffers. This is not a factor of competition either. Aaron needs rest and that is all on Steve Alford. This drives me crazy on a personal level.

3. The Defense.

Overall, UCLA defense stinks right now. It’s really bad. UCLA is ranked 112th in adjusted defense by Ken Pom. Last year’s offense-first team was better at 85. Two years ago with a losing record, it was 118th. However, at times, it has been the best of the Alford era. This team has much more talent on defense then either of those teams.

In five out of six positions (five starters and sixth man), UCLA is as good or better in individual match-ups than virtually all its opponents. Aaron Holiday is a very good defender. Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes, when they focus, are very good and are better athletes then whoever they are against. Wilkes especially is amazing. He has the size and strength to cover a four and the quickness to cover a guard. Prince Ali has, at times, looked okay and is doing better rebounding. As a fourth best defender, he is pretty good. Welsh is a master defender who plays very smart and is a good anchor to the defense. For example, he has regularly shut down Kentucky’s ultra-talented bigs. At four, we are out matched but so what? Five out of six is pretty good.

Suggestions: UCLA needs to play man with some exceptions like when Welsh is out and GG is the center. Welsh is key. In the first 3 Pac-12 games when UCLA was mostly man, Welsh averaged over 10 rebounds a game. In the last three, he has averaged under 10, in part, because the zone hurts our best rebounder and defender. Welsh covering a wing in a 3-2 zone is a nightmare and also because it takes away our best rebounder and rim protector.

UCLA’s press is not for defense but to speed the game. That’s fine as a change of pace, but even then it would be better if they drop into man.

UCLA’s zone is too passive. Alford needs to punish passiveness. Alford has pulled out GG early in halves for lack of effort on defense. He needs to do the same with other players such as Wilkes, Ali, and Hands.

The man-to-man defense makes Welsh a better player as well if he is close to the basket. This is the easiest area to fix as the potential is there and has shown to be very good such as when we held UW to under 28%. Even in the Colorado game, UCLA’s defense shut down Colorado for long periods. It was just that, in other periods, its press and zone were worthless. Alford just has to commit to man-to-man defense most of the time and hold players accountable.

4. Our power forward position will always be a problem, but there are options.

Gyorgy Goloman is a horrid defender and a foul machine. On the latter, he has AVERAGED over 4 fouls a game in Pac-12 games. In the loss to Colorado, he was often on the hot shooting George King. “On” is the wrong term. He played off him so King could not drive on him. As a result, King hit wide open threes. Another option is Chris Smith, a big with the highest physical potential. But Smith is horrid shooter. He is shooting a team worst in all categories 39% from the field, 15% from three, and 55% from the free throw line. He also unofficially leads the team in missed dunks and has significantly more turnovers than GG and Alex Olesinski in less minutes. Alex Olesinski is the best all-around of the fours but is a kid who tries hard but is limited physically. GG is better on offense and Smith is better on defense.

Suggestion: Hide the four and play the opponent. GG is the backup five and, when he is in for Welsh, UCLA should play zone. GG is better in a zone. He often loses his man, but he does well at intercepting passing and blocking shots. But GG is a legitimate Pac-12 four on offense. Play zone with GG when he is in for Welsh and play him when we need offense.

Smith is the opposite. Play Smith when we need a defender. He has the speed and strength to cover a stretch four. He has a high upside. He can cover a George King. But, on offense on Saturday against Colorado, he was wide open at the three-point line and Holiday refused to pass to him. This was not a bad decision by Holiday as Smith would either badly miss the three, drive and turn the ball over, or miss the shot. On offense, Smith needs to be told he can only shoot from 2 feet away and be pass first. Smith needs to use his size, strength and quickness to play on the inside. He cannot be allowed to dribble nor shoot from outside. I have not seen him post up. I assume he does not have this, but he can try or if they leave him uncovered crash the boards. The best place to have a bad shooter is the four as they can focus on crashing the boards inside and, with Welsh in the game, it is not bad to have him inside as Welsh can play outside.

If you can’t hide GG on a player on defense or if the other team is not playing Smith when we are on offense, Alex may be the best option even though GG is much better on offense and Smith is better on defense. Tell Alex to play more aggressive on defense and, fortunately, Alex seems to understand his limitations on offense. That’s not great and this position will always be a problem, but, at least, there are options to make it better.

5. The backup three.

Chris Smith for Kris Wilkes is just wrong. Chris Smith is not a three right now as he is one of the worst shooters in UCLA history. In an offense where the three plays outside, Smith has no business playing there.

The solution: Prince Ali should be the backup three. Ali is only playing 23 minutes a game. He has rebounded better recently including a career high nine in our most complete game against Utah. He can play more when Wilkes is out with Hands and Holiday.

6. The set offense.

UCLA’s problem in the entire Colorado game and late in other games is the set offense has become one of two things: A high screen by Welsh and two man game with Holiday and Welsh or, just Holiday. This has led to ugly periods in games.

The solution: Holiday is not good in the high screen with Welsh. That is because Holiday’s instinct is to attack. With Bryce, especially, or Lonzo, to a lesser extent, the guard could pull up for a three or pass back. Holiday attacks which even makes it hard to pass back. I think this play should run with Hands. Holiday is a set three shooter while, for the most part, Hands can pull back.

When Holiday is the point, I think it is essential the four go to the basket so Holiday can dump off to him or he can get a rebound. Holiday, as a passer, is more Darren Collision in that he drives and dishes. He is not like Lonzo Ball. He cannot whip the ball around with long passes.

Wilkes also needs to be more involved.

However, unlike the other things on this list, this is not as easy to fix, nor am I as confident. The set offense of Alford’s is not designed as much for Holiday at point and Hands is not ready. That is, in part, why I think this team needs to be more defense first. At times, the defense has looked great and it can certainly be better. The set offense seems to rely too much on Holiday, Welsh and hitting threes. The others need to be more involved, but that may be too late to make this happen.

In my post on how to win the Pac-12, I got in a lengthy sidebar with Matt G. Matt’s point may now be the relevant one. How many losses can UCLA have and still make the NCAA tourney? This should not be where we are at. And, if UCLA does not fix some of the problems, Matt and my argument may be moot.

Go Bruins!