Steve Alford spoke with the media yesterday after the release of the bracket for the "Championship Round" of the Maui Invitational. In case you haven't seen the Bruins' 2015-16 schedule yet, UCLA opens the season with home games against Monmouth (November 13), Cal Poly (November 15), and Pepperdine (November 19) before traveling to Hawai'i to play three games in three days in the Maui Invitational.
Although ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg describes the 8-team Maui Invitational field as "unbelievable," the tournament field seems to be filled with teams that had somewhat disappointing seasons in 2014-15. The top team is Kansas which finished first in the Big 12 last year but lost in the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament. Aside from UCLA, the only other Maui Invitational teams that earned NCAA tournament berths last year are Indiana (7th in the Big Ten, lost in the NCAA tournament Round of 64) and St. John's (5th in the Big East, lost in the NCAA tournament Round of 64). In my opinion, this season's Maui Invitational field pales in comparison to last season's Battle 4 Atlantis field.
UCLA will open the tournament with a game against UNLV. The Runnin' Rebels were 18-15 last year and finished in sixth place in the Mountain West Conference. If the Bruins defeat UNLV, they'll get the winner of the Kansas/Chaminade game.
Joey Kaufman at the Orange County Register has posted excerpts from Alford's conference call. Although Alford's answers mostly consist of coachspeak, he shares a few interesting tidbits along the way.
In response to a question about the benefits of competing in an early season tournament, Alford had this to say (emphasis added):
"It's an honor for us to be in this field, to be in this tournament. I've always felt that this was the premier event. To be in this event is going to great for our program, great for our players. Hopefully we'll be a little bit better prepared in November than we were last year. We had a very, very young, very inexperienced team a year ago, and we return a lot... I'm hoping, as long as we don't have injuries, we're a little bit further ahead of where we want to be offensively and defensively and the experience that we didn't have last year, we'll have a little bit more of that going into this year.
As I've written previously, I think Alford conveniently overstates the inexperience and youthfulness of last year's squad. However, my reason for highlighting this isn't an attempt to revisit that argument. Rather, I think Alford has overestimated the "experience" of this year's team. Although the Bruins return a lot of players from last season, three first year players are likely to play a lot of minutes this season: Aaron Holiday, Prince Ali, and Jonah Bolden. In fact, there's good reason to believe that guards Holiday and Ali will play more minutes combined than Norman Powell did last year. Moreover, Bolden and freshman Alex Olesinski may combine to play more minutes than Kevon Looney did last season. Therefore, as a practical matter, the 2015-16 Bruins are remarkably similar to the 2014-15 version in terms of on-court experience. It will be interesting to see if the "very, very young, very inexperienced team" excuse is revived at some point this season.
Alford seems pretty excited about the availability of Jonah Bolden this year, but as his comments about Bolden make clear, Bolden is not a replacement for Kevon Looney (emphasis added):
"We really like him, because he's versatile. At 6-9, almost 6-10, he's very long. He gives us a big guard. We had a little bit of that in year one here, where we would do different things with Kyle Anderson as far as where we played him. I think we can do the same thing now with Jonah. We can play him at the big guard position. We can also play him at what people like calling the stretch four. He's really a guard. It's really a matter of being able to play four guards at once. He gives us the versatility of being long, big, very athletic. He can shoot the basketball."
I'm not sure why Alford is excited about using Bolden as a "big guard" considering the fact that he has decent backcourt depth this season but lacks frontcourt punch. What the Bruins lost in Kevon Looney was a player that did the hard work: defense and rebounding, While it's great to add another player with the ability to score from the perimeter, someone has to fill the void created when the Bruins lost their two top defensive rebounders (Looney and Powell) to the NBA. Will Bolden embrace that role? Nothing in Alford's description of Bolden as a "big guard" make me think he'll be a force on the boards.
Surprisingly, Alford had much less to say about Holiday and Ali.
"Aaron Holiday and Prince Ali, in the backcourt, have stepped in right away. They're very similar as freshmen as Zach (LaVine) and Bryce (Alford) were. You can't tell that they're freshmen. They blend in extremely well. They're definitely going to be in our rotation and have a lot to do with what we do in the backcourt. We have a much deeper backcourt than we had a year ago."
There's nothing newsworthy there. I expect Holiday and Ali to play significant minutes, with each averaging 20-25 minutes or so a game. More interesting are Alford's comments about his new frontcourt players.
Alex Olesinski has been really good, a guy that like GG (Gyorgy Goloman) who is a stretch four that can shoot the ball from a lefty standpoint. A hard worker, rebounder. Then Ike (Okwarabizie) gives us another strong, physical presence inside.
What strikes me about Alford's comments about Bolden, Olesinski and Goloman is that he describes all of them as "stretch fours." Apparently Alford really covets forwards that are perimeter scorers. Unfortunately, stretch fours are often not particularly strong rebounders--as Goloman demonstrated last season--so it's good news to hear that Olesinski is a "hard worker" and a "rebounder." If Alford is right about that, Olesinski may become a key contributor in the rotation this year.
After watching video of Ike Okwarabizie in April when his transfer was announced, it was immediately evident that he's athletic and powerful, but he's also raw. I'm skeptical that he will be ready to contribute much this season, and I don't see him as a forward at this point. Therefore, Alford's trio of stretch forwards will have to step up to replace Looney's work on the boards.
Finally, in reply to a question about the preseason, Alford had this to say:
"You're going to get a really good idea and picture of who your team is going into December... A lot of times you need to play 10 to 12 games in the non-conference to get your identity. I think we'll get a really good picture of who we are coming out of this tournament."
The Bruins play Cal State Northridge following the Maui Invitational, and head into December after playing seven games in November. I think Alford is right that the 2015-16 Bruins need to play 12 non-conference games before we'll really know the identity of this team. It's the December games against Kentucky (December 3), Gonzaga (December 12) and North Carolina (December 19)--not the Maui Invitational--that will really test this team and reveal its character.