Exhibition games are a great way to start out the year, because it allows you to ease into the season against an opponent you will clearly outmatch. This is doubly-great if your team features only 3 returning rotation pieces from last year.
Maybe I should repeat that fact, just for clarification: UCLA only returned 3 rotation pieces from last year’s 31-5 squad: Aaron Holiday, Thomas Welsh, and my large Hungarian son G.G. Goloman. Enter 5 new freshman, all highly recruited, part of the 5th best recruiting class in the nation last year. And then throw in the return of two more players from redshirt seasons, and you have a lot of new faces that need to learn how to play with each other in a competitive setting.
If we’re being honest, there wasn’t much we were going to learn in this game beyond getting a first look at the team, and that first look still looks pretty good. 7 Bruins ended up in double figures in this game, but more importantly, the defense actually looked fairly good. Is it near where UCLA defenses were under Ben Howland? Absolutely not, but it certainly feels like the best UCLA defense of the Alford era.
The offense was another question mark, especially after losing 5 pieces from last year’s all-time great offensive output, and the good news is that UCLA still appears to be utilizing some of the same concepts from last year. The Bruins racked up 27 assists in this game, and shot 47.4% (9-19) from 3, both numbers you’d expect from last year’s squad. This team remained as unselfish as ever.
And of course, most importantly, no one suffered an injury.
Because they’re not going to be in the takeaways, I want to highlight two guys up here real quick. First, Aaron Holiday seemed to take a willing backseat in this game, allowing Jaylen Hands to take the reigns of the offense, and it was honestly a smart decision from Steve Alford. We know how good Holiday is; no need for him to go all out against CSULA. Better news was the return of Prince Ali, who looked like he was never gone for a year with a knee injury. Ali showed off the explosive athleticism that he was known for, including his first highlight dunk of the season, and now Bruin fans might spend at least a few days wondering how much better last year’s team would have been with a healthy Ali.
Thomas Welsh led all scorers with 22 points. He also led the team in rebounds with 14. Jaylen Hands led the team with 11 assists.
- Player of the Game: Thomas Welsh - Reports from the offseason said that Thomas was going to work on his outside shooting, looking to extend his range out to the three point line. So it wasn’t surprising to see Welsh line up a shot from distance early in this game, but it was at least a bit surprising to see him drain both of his 3 pointers as if they were free throws. Welsh was a tour-de-force in this game, going 10-13 from the field, grabbing 14 rebounds, and generally looking like the best player on the floor for the majority of this game. I commented that Welsh looked like Pau Gasol in this game, and if he can continue this type of performance throughout the season, he has a great chance to be a 1st round pick this coming June.
- The Kids Look All Right - Much was made about this recruiting class, specifically Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes, and for the most part, all of the freshman who played in this game looked pretty good. Hands put up a double-double, adding 12 points to go with his 11 assists and 9 rebounds, while Wilkes added 14 points. Cody Riley looked like an absolute force, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he isn’t the starting 4 in a few games, while Chris Smith looked very good for a player who probably should be a high school senior at this moment. And, since everyone will be wondering anyway, LiAngelo Ball looks to have already carved out a set role in this group as a 3 point shooter and secondary creator off the bench, putting up 11 points in 16 minutes. Overall, a solid first outing for the kids, who can only get better from here.
- Alford Keeps Minutes Low - One of the constant criticisms of Steve Alford is his inability to develop a bench, instead relying on starters playing large minutes, even early in the season in blowout victories. So I’m happy to report that no UCLA player was on the court for longer than 25 minutes, while 10 players saw at least 15 minutes. Aaron Holiday led the way in minutes played, and that felt more of a result of wanting a strong veteran presence on the court to give the younger players some support, but everyone got some much-needed experience.
UCLA officially begins the season next Friday, with a trip to China to play Georgia Tech. Tip is scheduled for 8:30 PM PST.