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UCLA Men's Basketball Roundtable: Freshmen Power!

The Bruins Nation team discusses the Bruins' freshmen-driven 10-0 start as well as UCLA's prospects heading into the Pac-12 campaign.

1. There's a lot to like about the 2016-17 Bruins. They play attractive, high-scoring, fast-paced basketball. The team features three supremely talented freshmen. And of course, there's UCLA's 10-0 start to the season, which includes a big win over a top-ranked team on their home court. Do you think this team can sustain this level of play throughout the season? What do you believe is the most likely thing that could go wrong?

DCBRUINS: It should sustain the level. Actually as Ike Anigbogu gets better we could increase our level a bit on defense. I hate to say what would most likely go wrong. Obviously an injury would hurt. Really Steve Alford did a great job recruiting this year and needs to do a good job coaching and we will be great.

AnteatersandBruins: One of the things Alford brought up in his press conference last week got me thinking-this team has faced no real adversity. What will happen when they do eventually lose? It is not likely that they will run the table (although they have arguably already played their toughest games), so how will the team respond to a loss?

Nirya: Yeah, I think this level of performance can be sustained. The simple fact is that UCLA is a good, no, great shooting team, and has the ability to attack defenses in a myriad of ways. They can beat you outside, and they can beat you inside (for example, the Bruins had 42 points in the paint against Michigan, and that was without Thomas Welsh). The big question will be whether they can stay healthy, and whether the defense can become above-average, but for now I’m optimistic.

Joe Piechowski: These players are a group of guys every Bruin can get behind. I think that, 10 games into the season, the expectation is now that it be sustained. So far, they’ve shown they can play with anybody. Will it be sustained? That’s the big question. At the same time, we haven’t really gotten a chance to see what this team does in the face of adversity yet. I’m really interested in seeing how they respond. The most likely thing to go wrong is probably an unpredictable injury. That could prove to be the adversity I want to see them respond to. But, hey, ideally, nothing goes wrong and the team is still playing into April. So far, it looks like Steve Alford did a great job recruiting, but he needs to keep it up too.

Bruinette88: The freshman have certainly exceeded expectations. In my opinion, Ball and Leaf are the two most important players on this team; if they falter, the Bruins will struggle to beat good opponents. Therefore, I think Alford needs to manage their minutes carefully to ensure that they don’t hit the freshman wall too soon or too hard. Also, given the potential for injury, I wish that Alford had done a better job of developing his bench. The fact that GG is averaging less than 12 minutes per game after an opening 10 game stretch against largely weak opponents demonstrates that Alford hasn’t thought much about what he will do if UCLA’s thin and inexperienced frontcourt suffers an injury to a starter. Lastly, I worry that Alford’s obsession with guards makes the Bruins vulnerable against big, physical teams. I can’t say that Alford’s use of a four-guard lineup comes anywhere near matching the short-sightedness of his nonstrategic commitment to his two-center lineup last year, but it suggests that Alford doesn’t recognize the tactical importance of flexibility in his rotations. Last year Steve Alford spent more than half the season trying to fit a square peg in a round hole; I fear that he hasn’t learned the lesson from the disaster of last season and may try to force a triangular peg in a round hole this time around.

2. Which player could the Bruins least afford to lose to injury?

DCBRUINS: Lonzo Ball. Lonzo is the glue guy, leader, MVP, etc. This is not close. He is also clutch on defense and offense.

AnteatersandBruins: I'd say Ball. His defense needs work but his ability to not only make his own shots but set up the rest of the team is invaluable.

Nirya: Yeah, the obvious answer is Lonzo, but it’s also the correct one. Simply put, a Lonzo injury suddenly opens the question of whether Steve Alford recognizes that his son works well as a 2 and lets Aaron Holiday become the PG, and also makes it so a Prince Ali return becomes less of a luxury and more of a requirement just to have quality depth at the guard position.

Joe Piechowski: I have to agree with DC and Nirya. It’s Lonzo. If Lonzo went down tomorrow, I’m concerned that Alford would consider moving Bryce back to the point, rather than leaving him in the role he’s in where he is playing very, very well.

Bruinette88: TJ Leaf. Alford’s inability to develop satisfactory depth at the forward position could sink the Bruins if Leaf were lost to injury. While it’s true that Ball has had a bigger impact so far, this is a calculation involving both the value of the player lost and the skill of the replacement player. Holiday is more than capable of starting and playing big minutes if Ball is injured. Unfortunately, there’s a huge dropoff from Leaf to GG, so an injury to Leaf would be a tremendous blow.

3. Which of UCLA's freshmen has most exceeded your expectations?

DCBRUINS: TJ Leaf. I am trying to think the last time the "second best" freshman was this good. Ball is the MVP but TJ Leaf may be the best four in the conference and possibly the most complete scorer in the PAC 12. (By the latter he can post, he can hit the three, he can fill the lane, etc. Others may be better at part of the scoring game but no one is as good as Leaf at every possible part.)

AnteatersandBruins: I'd have to say I didn't expect T.J. Leaf to look like Bill Walton (or any of the other Bruin greats people have compared him to) this early in the season.

Nirya: Leaf is the probable answer, but I’m going to go with Ike Anigbogu.We knew Leaf would be good, though we didn’t know he’d be this good this fast. With Ike, especially after his preseason knee injury and surgery, we really didn’t know what he would provide, but through his first 3 games against quality opponents, Anigbogu has shown that he provides a different look for opponents - a true rim protector who makes the defense better simply with his presence. The scary thing is that he’s looked good without the early warmup games against bad teams, so who knows what his ceiling is.

Joe Piechowski: Personally, not having seen him play in HS, I had my doubts about Lonzo. But, I also had my doubts that Alford would adapt and let a freshman play such a big role on the team, but, to his credit, Alford has adapted well to that and Lonzo’s play has been unbelievable so far this year as a result.

Bruinette88: I think it has to be Leaf. I expected Ball to have a tremendous impact, but I didn’t realize that Leaf would be so versatile and so productive so soon. He leads UCLA in rebounds, he’s second in points scored by 1, and he leads all starters in FG%. If he continues to perform as he has through his first 10 games, Ball won’t be the only one-and-done Bruin this season.

4. Should Prince Ali redshirt this season?

DCBRUINS: Tough question. If any of the four guards gets hurt, Ali is needed. I think we have a chance to go far and even if he can help just a little he should play. However, I agree with Steve Alford who says redshirting is a player's decision. Ali should decide.

AnteatersandBruins: It really depends on how long he is out. Alford says another three to four weeks, then we're talking strength and conditioning and practice. If the team can make it without him, then maybe he should save a year, especially since we're not only losing at least two "one and dones" but seniors like Bryce Alford. His experience will help the incoming class next year.

Nirya: I agree that this should be a player’s decision at this point, but I’d lean towards him coming back this season if he’s able to. With Ball, Alford, and Hamilton all gone after this year, and with Holiday possibly playing his way into the draft as well, Ali will be counted on next year to be a major contributor, and getting him to work with the team this year would give him a head start on next season. But he’d also be a luxury right now, so it should be Ali’s decision.

Joe Piechowski: Perhaps they should try to at this point, but, if someone else gets injured, they will probably need him to play. This is a team that finally seems to have some bench depth. Do they need more? Not at this time, but they could. Barring an injury to someone else, it should be left up to Ali.

Bruinette88: Of course Ali should make the decision, and unless there’s an injury to one of UCLA’s four guards, then his decision should be to redshirt. As we’ve seen in the past, Alford is unlikely to change his rotation midseason unless he has to, so Ali should be skeptical about promises of significant playing time this year.

5. Prediction time:

(a) Will UCLA be undefeated heading into conference play against Oregon on December 28th?


AnteatersandBruins: Yes.

Nirya: Yes.

Joe Piechowski: They’ve only got to beat UCSB at home, Ohio State in Vegas and Western Michigan at home. So, yes.

Bruinette88: Definitely. None of UCLA’s remaining non-conference opponents is a top-25 team. In fact, none of them are receiving votes in the USA Today Coaches poll. With two of those games at home and one on a neutral court, the Bruins should enter conference play undefeated.

(b) Will the Bruins be the top-ranked team in the nation at any point this season?

DCBRUINS: Depends on Villanova. We certainly have a shot.

AnteatersandBruins: Yes.

Nirya: I’d say probably not, but not for lack of trying. I think UCLA is more likely to lose a game before Villanova does, and at that point a healthy Duke team would probably take the top spot.

Joe Piechowski: If Villanova loses before the end of conference play, we’ll be #1.

Bruinette88: I think it's more probable than not. Villanova has to play back-to-back road games against #10 Creighton (December 31st) and #18 Butler (January 4th), while the Bruins have a single game against a ranked opponent (#22 Oregon) between now and January 21st. That means that the Bruins are well-positioned to take advantage of a Villanova slip up.

(c) Who will lead the team in minutes played this season?

DCBRUINS: Lonzo Ball, won’t be that close.

AnteatersandBruins: Ball.

Nirya: Ball, unless he actually gets some halves off against lesser Pac 12 teams.

Joe Piechowski: Should be Ball.

Bruinette88: Lonzo Ball. It would be smart for Alford to manage Ball’s minutes so that he’s relatively fresh in March, but Alford has shown a tendency in the past to focus more on the battle than on the war. The fact that Holiday is averaging nearly nine minutes less per game than Ball and nearly eight minutes less per game than Bryce gives me reason to think that Alford doesn’t see the bigger picture.

(d) Who will lead the team in scoring average?

DCBRUINS: This is the toughest call. It is between Leaf and Hamilton. I will go Hamilton only because the SPTR will get Leaf in foul trouble a couple games this year.

AnteatersandBruins: Alford.

Nirya: Boy this is a tough one. I agree that it’s a decision between Leaf and Hamilton, but I’ll go with Leaf just because of how streaky Hamilton can be.

Joe Piechowski: Hamilton.

Bruinette88: I agree with DC that it’s a choice between Leaf and Hamilton. However, I don’t think the combination of minutes for and production from Leaf is sustainable. As we saw from Looney in his freshman campaign, I expect Leaf to tire later in the season, and Alford will either have to reduce his minutes or accept reduced production. Either way, I think Hamilton has the edge as the Bruins’ scoring average leader.

(e) Who will be the team's leading rebounder?

DCBRUINS: TJ Leaf. This kid is special.

AnteatersandBruins: Welsh.

Nirya: It’ll be Leaf. Welsh might have had a shot, but missing 2 full games is going to be too much to overcome.

Joe Piechowski: Leaf, as long as he stays healthy.

Bruinette88: Probably Leaf, although the reasoning I used above applies here too. Welsh will post superior rebound/minute stats, but Leaf will play more minutes, and that will make the difference.