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UCLA Men's Basketball Roundtable: 2017 Home Stretch Edition

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The Bruins Nation team discusses UCLA's freshman stars and roster depth, and assesses the state of the Pac-12 title race as the team heads into the home stretch of the conference season.

@UCLAMBB

1. After the loss to Southern Cal, Steve Alford was asked if Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf had hit the freshman wall. Alford insisted that they hadn’t--instead he claimed that the pair of freshmen were simply suffering from fatigue brought on by the number of games they were playing. So far this season, Ball is leading the team in minutes per game (35.2), and Leaf is third (30.8). Do you think Ball and Leaf can continue to average 35+ and 30+ minutes per game, respectively, and still be performing at their best in the final weeks of the regular season, the Pac-12 tournament, and the NCAA Tournament?

AnteatersandBruins: All signs point to yes. We’ve seen even the best hit a slump (Isaac Hamilton, for example) and continue strong for the rest of the season. These kids have a special talent at an elite level, and play like they can maintain it. As for Alford’s comments, I actually think he’s wrong. I feel like the college game finally got to T.J. and Lonzo, but luckily they’ve taken whatever corrective measures they needed to in order to get back on track, and did so before either tournament. Players hit slumps for various reasons, and for these two, I’d attribute it to being Freshman.

DCBRUINS: On Leaf. Not sure in all honesty. He seems to have hit a wall and that could be a reason. On Ball, yes and no. No, Ball has not hit a wall for the season. However, Walton, in one of his tangents said Ball should play 40, but Alford said he should rest. Ball has looked tired late in halves and can’t play 40. I think Steve has realized that finally. So, no, I am not worried about Ball wearing down for the season but I am worried for an individual game.

orlandobruin: I cannot predict the future, but hitching the wagon to the two youngest horses and hoping that they have enough left in the tank when it really counts is asking a whole lot. Maybe too much. Time will tell. Let’s hope things work out in the next three and then GG and Aaron can get extended minutes in the last two games at home against the Washington schools.

Nirya: I thought they might have hit a wall during the USC game, and then the two turned things around for the Washington road trip. I really don't think there is a wall for Lonzo to hit; the kid is just a machine. And Leaf still might hit a wall, but I think he has a better chance of playing through it.

Joe Piechowski: I think they’ll be fine. These are kids who have played enough basketball in their before getting to UCLA that I think they’ll be fine. And, frankly, if they’re not, it’s a conditioning issue and, guess who that would ultimately fall on...Steve Alford. If they get too run down at the end of the season, it will be Alford’s fault for not having a strong enough conditioning program in place for them.

Bruinette88: Realistically, no. Leaf looks tired at times, and the demands of the postseason won’t give him meaningful time to rest. The Pac-12 Tournament is especially challenging for teams that don’t have depth, so I suspect we probably won’t see the best of Leaf and Ball in the second and third rounds of the conference tournament, assuming UCLA makes it that far.

2. Only one Bruin (Aaron Holiday) is averaging more than 12 minutes per game off the bench in conference games. Do you see this as an indication that either UCLA lacks depth or Alford lacks flexibility in the way he manages the team? Do you see it as a problem in the postseason?

AnteatersandBruins: I feel like Alford sometimes has a "stick to what works" mentality, and doesn’t change it up unless something goes horribly wrong. Take, for example, his stubbornness to use zone defense. He didn’t try it very much at all until they’d lost three games, mostly due to lack of defensive play. A coaching style like that can have horrible consequences, especially when you’re playing in single elimination tournaments. You have to be willing to change it up on the fly and have a back up plan if your opponent figures out your defensive strategy early on.

DCBRUINS: After Holiday, the bench is a Center (5 only) in Ike Anigbogu and GG.The two could not be more different. Ike is an elite athlete but raw. GG is tall but an inferior athlete who gets by on his smarts. It may make sense to play Holiday more than he is now because he never looks tired. It even makes sense to play GG less at times because he can struggle against the PAC 12’s better teams. Ike is the wildcard. He has the potential to be great but can look lost. This is a long way of saying I am okay with what Alford is doing with Ike and GG but would like him to play Holiday even more.

orlandobruin: See my answer above regarding GG. He should play more against the Washington schools. Not sure if he is talented enough against two of the three other schools we play. It would be great if UCLA was in a position to get him extended minutes at ASU but I see that as a huge trap game for UCLA. Ike could get more minutes but he is still raw. We have three other guards playing over 30 minutes a game so there’s no minutes to be had there. So, yeah, we are eight men deep, four guards and four frontliners. I agree that UCLA lacks a bit of depth, unless someone can name me a player who should get consistent minutes and isn’t. Jerrold Smith? Alec Wulff? (Both of whom are guards, by the way). Another body on the front line?

Nirya: It's definitely a depth issue. This is where losing Ali and Alex hurts a bit, because they could have contributed at least 5 minutes each off the bench. I'd also say that Alford seems to want to have Ike play as much as possible, and foul trouble tends to limit his minutes more than anything else (see the Oregon game, where Ike played 15 minutes and helped key the run defensively).

Joe Piechowski: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Steve Alford has never made an effort to develop the bench players. And, it showed in the Washington game recently when he left the starters out on the floor as long as he did in a 40-point game. It’s clear that Alford has never trusted the guys on the bench and he still doesn’t. That is, ultimately, another black mark on how Alford has run the program.

Bruinette88: Frankly, it’s both. Alford’s roster management is terrible, and he has done a particularly poor job of developing his bench players. But Alford has also shown a lack of flexibility in the way he manages the team. Even so, if Alford could just realize that there are long term benefits in reducing his starters’ minutes a bit, then this wouldn’t be an issue.

To put this into perspective, in conference play, Arizona has 8 players averaging 15 minutes or more per game. Oregon, Southern Cal, Utah and Cal each have 7 players averaging over 15 minutes per game in Pac-12 play. UCLA has 6. It’s not about injuries either. Last season, the Bruins had only 6 players play 15 minutes or more in Pac-12 action. In 2014-15, it was again just 6 players for the Bruins. Alford simply doesn’t develop his bench players, and if you don’t believe me, name a Bruin that Alford recruited who spent at least one year on the bench as a minor contributor (less than 15 minutes per game) before emerging as a major contributor. Good luck with that.

3. There’s been a lot of chatter about UCLA’s improved defense in their last four games. In your opinion, to what extent have the Bruins improved defensively since the start of conference play?

AnteatersandBruins: I think they’ve finally recognized that they can win every game by twenty points and play crappy defense at the same time. The non-conference games set up that attitude, and I feel like they’ve slowly but surely learned that you can’t ignore that side of the ball.

DCBRUINS: Two players are much improved. Lonzo Ball has become our defensive stopper. He is an elite defender at times. The second player is Bryce Alford. For 3.5 seasons, Bryce did not try. Bryce is not good now, but Bryce’s effort is contagious and, I think, helped key the better defense.

orlandobruin: I agree with AnteastersandBruins above. The recognition of the team to play defense appears to have helped. That being said, three of those four teams in that streak are literally the three PAC 12 bottom feeders. And did our defense really change against Oregon? 89-87 Ducks in Eugene and 82-79 Bruins in Westwood. OK, both teams were held to 7-8 points less, but that, as well as three wins against numbers ten through twelve in the conference does not, IMO, signify a sea change with respect to UCLA’s defense.

Nirya: It honestly starts with Bryce. We’ve hounded him for years about his poor defensive effort, and that can be contagious (after all, why should you bother to try if the coach’s son can get away with it). So Bryce’s increased focus on the defensive end has had a trickle-down effect on the rest of the team. I wouldn't say the defense overall is much improved, but just showing some effort and new looks (a press!) might be enough to take this team to the next level.

Joe Piechowski: I’m with DC. Bryce deserves a lot of credit for making an effort on defense. I just wish he would have done it 3½ seasons ago.

Bruinette88: Honestly, as much talk as there has been of UCLA’s improving defense, I haven’t seen significant improvement. In fact, if we just look at the last four games since the loss to Southern Cal--a two week stretch in which the Bruins’ defense was supposedly much improved--in half of those games, UCLA’s opponents (Washington State & Oregon) posted offensive ratings (points per 100 possessions) against the Bruins that were higher than their season average.

I’ve never shied away from criticism of Steve Alford, but what my colleagues have written above is as sharp in condemnation of Alford’s coaching as anything I’ve ever written. And I have to say, that I completely agree with their assessment. The fact that for three and a half years, the coach’s son didn’t give 100% effort on defense is a serious indictment of Steve Alford’s coaching and leadership. The fact that the coach’s son led the team in minutes played in two of those seasons makes it even worse. Where’s the accountability? As Coach said, "if a player's not doing the things he should, put him on the bench. He'll come around."

Consistent, focused, and total commitment should always be a baseline requirement. When lack of discipline and lack of accountability infect a program, it becomes difficult to produce a quick cure. Good habits are built over months of hard work and repetition; bad habits aren’t corrected by a team meeting.

4. Let’s talk about the home stretch of the conference season. Of the teams with a realistic chance of claiming the Pac-12 regular season title, it seems that Oregon has the easiest set of games, and UCLA has the toughest. Given that the Bruins are a game behind Oregon and two games behind Arizona, how do you rate UCLA’s chances of finishing first in the Pac-12 this year?

AnteatersandBruins: Unfortunately, not very good. Being two games behind Arizona is setting us up for a second place finish. While all games are winnable, you’re also going to need Arizona and Oregon to lose. It’s a tough mathematical equation and while it is possible, it isn’t probable. I don’t think any of us saw Oregon as such tough competition earlier in the season.

DCBRUINS: Not the best. We do need to beat JustSC as it is unacceptable to lose 5 in a row to them.

orlandobruin: Slim and none. The Bruins would have to go undefeated and that still might not be enough. UCLA plays the exact same teams as Arizona, and is two games back of them. Where will ‘Zona’s losses come from? Will UCLA fans root for Trogans in Tucson? Would a Southern Cal win soften up the ‘Cats for the Bruins or strengthen their resolute against UCLA? Zona needs to lose both against the L.A. schools, for starters. UCLA is a game behind Oregon, but the Ducks will be favored in the rest of their games, although they finish with three on the road, the Bay Area schools and their rivals in Corvallis. Maybe the Ducks lose one of those? All of THAT needs to happen while UCLA goes undefeated for the Bruins to have a chance. Personally, I see the Bruins finishing the season 4-1, which will not get it done.

Nirya: It's not happening. Both Zona and Oregon have much easier schedules going forward, and the Bruins need both of those teams to suffer another loss or two.

Joe Piechowski: There’s no doubt that UCLA has to win out to have any hope of claiming the regular season title. That means beating Southern Cal and the Washington schools at home and ASU and Arizona on the road. Let’s assume they do that. Arizona and Oregon still need to lose one more time each (besides UofA’s anticipated loss to the Bruins) for UCLA to tie for the lead. Winning it outright would require Oregon to lose twice and UofA to lose twice to other schools. Good luck with that. Not going to happen.

Bruinette88: While it’s still mathematically possible, it’s highly improbable. I’ve calculated win probabilities for each of the remaining games for Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA, and according to my estimates, the probability that the Bruins will finish either first or tied for first in the Pac-12 is less than 1%.

5. Last year, after the Trojans eliminated the Bruins from the Pac-12 tournament, the Bruins Nation headline read "Fire Alford: USC Destroys UCLA Again." Joe followed with an article entitled "Alford Becomes First UCLA Coach in 74 Years to Go 0-3 against USC." As we all know, Steve Alford extended his losing streak against Southern Cal to four games just a few weeks ago. Do you think that UCLA’s losing streak against the Trojans will end this week? If not, do you think that Steve Alford should be fired because of it?

AnteatersandBruins: I think that any coach that can’t beat Southern Cal should be fired. Beating that school is more important than any other match up and is a source of school pride and tradition. With that said, basketball isn’t like football. There is a postseason to consider and while beating Southern Cal is at the top of my list, I’d have to see how they did in the tournament to make a decision. However, I don’t see us losing to Southern Cal again. But lose to those guys and get bounced in the Sweet 16? He should be gone.

DCBRUINS: He needs to win but it is not a firing offense. The season should be judged at the end by the standards we laid out.

orlandobruin: A loss to Southern Cal in Westwood would (for all intents and purposes) eliminate UCLA from conference contention this season. That would eliminate one of the two standards BN set out for the season, so Alford could still meet the other standard to avoid firing, which is what is believe DCBruins is alluding to above. Pauley has to be freaking rocking on a 7 p.m. PT Saturday start against the Trogans! Packed to the rafters and LOUD, just like Oregon. But better. It will be and the Bruins will be better. UCLA will end the streak on Saturday.

Nirya: A loss to USC here wouldn't be a fireable offense, but it wouldn't help Alford in any way. USC is actually one of a few teams that I think match up favorably to the Bruins; they’re hyper athletic, can shoot from distance, and can play a rotation where every player is a scoring threat. Most teams can't do that, which allows UCLA to beat you with superior firepower, but USC is one of the few who can. Their kryptonite as a team is that their shooting tends to be streakier, but they always seem to play with a chip on their shoulder against the Bruins.

Joe Piechowski: This would pose an interesting scenario. Dan Guerrero doesn’t like losing rivalry games, but going winless in a minimum of 3 games for the first time in 74 years didn’t get him fired. It may surprise you but I’m not sure losing 5 in a row is either. At the same time, losing for a fifth straight game to Southern Cal would make it the second longest losing streak against them ever with the longest being a 42-game losing streak which started in the 1932-33 season and ended near the end of the 1942-43 season.

That said, a loss to them on Saturday would make it downright impossible for UCLA to win the conference regular season title and could make it harder for the team to win the Pac-12 Tournament, which was one of those things we said was a pre-requisite for Steve Alford to keep his job. But, can he lose Saturday and not deserve to be fired? Yes, but it’s going to take a miracle for this team to win the conference and advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time in Alford’s career which was our criteria for keeping him.

The real question is: Can this team put together six wins in a row, three to win the conference tournament and three to advance to the Elite 8? I’m still not sure our defense is good enough to do that. But, Saturday will be a good test of that.

Bruinette88: I think it’s pretty close to a 50-50 proposition. I’m giving UCLA the edge because of superior talent and home court advantage, but in my opinion, Alford’s poor game coaching minimizes that advantage.

Putting aside Alford’s baggage, it’s hard to make the argument that another loss to Southern Cal alone should merit Alford’s firing. However, given the quality of the team he inherited--a team that featured six future NBA players, three of whom were first round selections--the fact that Alford still hasn’t won a Pac-12 regular season title should be grounds for termination. Therefore, if the Trojans beat the Bruins this week, firing Alford would be completely justified as far as I’m concerned because it would represent another season in which the Bruins underperformed in the Pac-12 and failed to finish first in the conference.

Now, as DC notes, BN laid out a set of standards by which Alford should be judged at the end of the season. That said, if Alford survives by virtue of the "Lavin Loophole" (i.e., winning three games in the NCAA Tournament), I’ll be extremely disappointed. Any time a bar is set to a height that Steve Lavin could hop over, the bar is being set for failure.

Go BRUINS!