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UCLA Basketball: Is "Versatility" Another Word for "Desperation?"

UCLA's lineup seems wide open, is that a good thing?

Thomas Welsh seems like an unlikely candidate to replace Kevon Looney in the starting lineup as he did in the first exhibition game.
Thomas Welsh seems like an unlikely candidate to replace Kevon Looney in the starting lineup as he did in the first exhibition game.
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Fox 71 had an interesting comment to the post game for the UCLA exhibition win:

It would be nice to have ten guys who could each play 20 minutes and contribute, and it seems that if this experiment continues, we might have that.

Would a team of 10 guys each playing 20 minutes a game really work?  Let me take a minute to go over the two UCLA coaches to win National Championships philosphy regarding number of players to regularly play.

Coach 7.5

A lot of people here often talk about how everyone deserves more playing time.  Certainly every player deserves a chance in the exhibition and early games.  For example, Alex Olesinski certainly was a nice surprise in the exhibition game versus the expectations for him.

However, I am a bit worried.  Anyone know the one thing Coach Wooden changed from his very good teams to his  run of championship teams?  John Wooden from They Call Me Coach:

As I tried to put my finger on the one elusive factor that had stood in our way, I went back over every statistical record I had.  Only one thing had stood out.  Perhaps I had worked the players too hard early and by season's end - or tournament time - they had been too worn out to survive the rigors of that level of competition.  A related factor seemed equally important.  Players on the starting five had practiced more together, and when necessary - an injury, foul trouble, fatigue - required a sixth, seventh or eighth man to go into the game, the new group hadn't melded as well together as a team.  . . . Not only were the players more familiar with one another and with working as a team, they were more content. . . . Was this rather minute change the reason for our string of successes beginning in 1964? I don't know. It is the only change I made.

Coach only used a 7 or 8 man rotation and practiced those seven or eight as a unit.  If you were the ninth man, you were a practice first player   Ironically in Coach's first and last championship it was a bench player that played a key role.

The Harrick Funnel

In the last championship team down the stretch run Coach Jim Harrick played just seven guys.  The five starters and Cameron Dollar and J.R. Henderson.  In the Championship game UCLA lost Tyus Edney to a hand injury and Cameron Dollar stepped in.  Dollar was not Edney but the team and Dollar knew what he had to do.

While Wooden played the same 7 or 8 all season when it counted, Harrick generally played nine or ten with a caveat.  He would play players 8-10 only in the first half of games and less as the season went on.  In reality he was doing something similar to Wooden just giving some more players a chance to play but only in the non-conference or in the first half.

Alford 2016 "We're just messing with the starting five right now"

In Alford's first two seasons the bench was also effectively three people for an 8 man rotation.

2013-14 His first season the bench was Tony Parker backup 5, Zach Lavine backup 2-3, Bryce Alford backup 1-2.

2014-15 it was Noah Allen backup 2-3, Gyorgy Golomon (backup 3-4) and Thomas Welsh backup five.   (in both cases the missing positions were filled by starters moving over).    I honestly think this was the worst bench in UCLA basketball history for a team unaffected by injuries, transfers, etc.

GG was really the only real change in either season from the start of a season to the end.  GG was originally out of the rotation as a ninth man (he had a coach's decision did not play early last year and passed Wanah Bail after the Battle for Atlantis tournament.)

This year, nothing is set according to Steve Alford.  As Fox mentioned seemingly 10 guys could play 20 minutes.   I am scared about this.  Yes, it is great to give everyone a chance.  But this also means:

1.   There is no superstar. Bryce Alford is almost certain to lead UCLA in minutes (as he did in the exhibition) but Bryce is not a pro prospect.  Right now, I don't think anyone else on this team is likely to go pro.  The last time I felt this way at the start of the season was 2009-10.  That season did not end well.

2.  Versatility is desperation.  Steve Alford loves to talk about versatility especially in the context of the depth letting him play Parker and Welsh together.  Thomas Welsh is improved.  But last year with an awful bench there was never a thought to playing Welsh and Parker together.   Again, I realize Welsh has improved but I am positively frightened by the prospect that Welsh and Parker may need to play together.

3.  Aaron Holiday for defense.  I am pleased with Steve Alford for playing Aaron at point so much in the exhibition. It is the right decision regardless of whether or not Arron is a going to be the starting point guard.  One of the reasons why though is kind of frightening.  It is not for Aaron's potential to be a point guard but rather according to Steve Alford we need his speed on the court to overcome our lack of speed elsewhere.  In other words if we are going to play two centers or three bigs, we need Aaron on the court to hopefully disrupt the opposing point guard and give the bigs a chance to move.

4.  We have four power forwards which is another way of saying we have none. Yes GG is hurt and bigger.  I still don't believe he is the answer.  During the exhibition game Jonah Bolden, Alex Olesenski and and Tony Parker all played four.  Bolden was best in the second half and Alex for the game.

5.  We have five threes why are we trying some of these guys at three? Again in the exhibition Isaac Hamilton, Jonah Bolden, Alex Olesinski and Noah Allen all played small forward.  Now the good news here is Isaac played a perfect game.  He was so smooth and even had a nice dunk (don't remember him doing that much last year).  Isaac played smart.  It was nice to see.  Prince Ali will also play three.  But if Isaac was set at the three with Ali as the backup, I would have expected to see Noah play a lot of backup three minutes so Jonah and especially Alex could focus on four.  That is not what happen.  This seems to indicate to me that Jonah and Alex are really in competition for minutes at the three and four.  Bolden has a nice handle for a big.  He has an ugly looking shot.  We need a four desperately, why is Bolden playing three?  Answer: We may also need a backup three.

Ali is a slight 6'3".  In other words he is not a Norman Powell who was very strong for his height.  Now, many teams play three guards BUT you cannot play a traditional zone with a small slight guy at the bottom.  Alford seems to be experimenting with a very big lineup because he does not have a second three and/or he is not sure about Ali.  I think it is more the second reason.

6.  Didn't practice a lineup. At one point in the exhibition game in the first half UCLA had a lineup of 1-Aaron Holiday 2-Noah Allen 3 Jonah Bolden 4 Alex Olesinski and 5 Thomas Welsh.  Alford did say after the game (ht Bruin report online for all quotes, not behind a firewall): "one time we had an odd lineup in the game, we didn't even practice that lineup.  That's obviously my fault."  This worries me a bit.  Again, I understand and encourage experimenting in an exhibition game.  I was genuinely excited to see Aaron play the point so much for example.  But it seemed Alford was flailing a bit for combinations.  Yes, he was without GG and Ali, but still.

7.  Simplify. Bolden may be able to play three and four.  But he is a kid from Australia who has not played competitive basketball for a year and a half.  I have to believe it would be better to say to pick a position for him and work on mastering it, instead of having him play the three and four.  Again Steve Alford said of Bolden: "Forgot the offense [in the first half].  . ..  In the second half he figured out we have an offense and there is a right place and a wrong place to be. "  Small Forward and Power Forward are different positions.   Pick one for Bolden.

I can't remember the last time a UCLA team was this wide open for who is going to start or be in the final 8 man rotation.  Yes competition is good but possibly only one player has a well-defined role right now, Isaac Hamilton as the three.  Oh, and he just happened to have the best game in the exhibition.

Go Bruins!