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UCLA Basketball: The Sky Is Not Falling

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This is still the most talented and deepest UCLA team in years

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Four-St. Bonaventure vs. UCLA
Yes, UCLA has suffered injuries but keep in mind it was a deep team and the stars, like Kris Wilkes, are still there.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The UCLA Bruins have lost three players to injury before the season has even started. Some are writing off the season already and/or the cynical are saying Steve Alford has an excuse for underachieving again. The fact of the matter is this is the deepest roster UCLA has had in years and, if there was ever a season for injuries like this, this is probably the best one for it to happen. That’s not to say the injuries won’t hurt but keep in mind that this team is deep and has plenty of time to adjust.

Briefly on each injury and what it means....

Alex Olesinski was not expecting to play much this year. Alex has greatly improved, but is still athletically limited.

Shareef O’Neal, despite the hype, was raw and unlikely to start. Sure, he would have played but how much a role for him as a relatively weak rebounding four in the rough Pac-12 was hard to see.

Tyger Campbell was often described as an insurance policy. He was there if Jaylen Hands was not ready and/or if Hands got hurt. Personally, I thought he had a decent chance to start, but, let’s be clear, there were legitimate questions if he was tough enough to handle the Pac-12. Keep in mind also that Hands is a legitimate pro prospect and off the charts as an athlete.

So, yes, we lost three guys but not the three that have a shot at being drafted in the first round. In other words, the injuries hurt depth on a deep team. This should still be a very good team.

Lastly, before I get to the depth chart, recall a small key to Coach Wooden’s success. The one tweak he made from his very good to his greatest of all time teams is that he practiced the first 7 or 8 together. By that I mean, pre-1964 he practiced the starting five versus the backups. 1964 and after he practice the 7 or 8 guys in the rotation against the backups. It is a different game today, but you still really only need a 7 or 8 man rotation. The 2018-19 Bruins have that and more.

The revised Depth Chart in order of quality of the starter:

3 or Shooting Forward: Kris Wilkes will be All-Pac-12 and lead UCLA in scoring. He is a veteran by today’s standards and should be the star of the team. Alford’s NCAA tournament teams all had clear stars. This year it should be Wilkes. As far as depth, often times the three is really just a third guard. UCLA has a lot of depth there. 6’6” Jules Bernard was ranked 55 by Scout and he is just one of three potential swings. Then, there is last year’s backup Chris Smith. No worries here.

1 or Point Guard: Aaron Holiday could not play point his freshman season. He was a good point and a great player by his junior season. Jaylen Hands has a higher ceiling then Holiday. Again, remember one of Coach Wooden’s many famous quotes: “I’d rather have a lot of talent and a little experience than a lot of experience and a little talent.” Hands has almost unlimited talent. Here, we are hurt on depth but this is not as dire as some say. David Singleton is now the backup at the point and, as ESPN says:

Singleton is a physical combo-guard who is equally adept at playing both guard positions. He has a strong frame with good length and he possesses a mature game for someone of his youth.

That does not sound bad at all for a backup point. Yes, Alford has to coach up Hands, but Hands has the potential to be another All-Pac-12 player and Singleton is a high major level backup.

5 or Center: Our third possible first round pick is five-star, seven foot tall Moses Brown. Behind him is 6’10” Kenneth Nwuba and not one, but three potential power forwards who could move over.

4 or Power Forward: I have always thought this was going to be Cody Riley’s position and nothing changes my mind now. But there are options galore here. Jalen Hill is supposed to be a power forward and no one should forget the most intriguing returning player, Chris Smith. Smith is the player that could really develop under Alford as Alford’s strength has been teaching outside shooting. Smith has size, handles, ability to play defense and no outside shot. If he fixes the latter, Smith is going to be a star.

2 or Shooting Guard: Prince Ali is the veteran and, while erratic, he started the year hot from three. (He shot 22% of his last 31 threes while shooting 42% of his first 69.) He could get better and more consistent or he could regress, but there is a lot of depth here again with Bernard or Singleton able to start or play backup. And, remember, this team will likely not need the two guard to do much on offense.

To Review Depth Chart (*=secondary position, italics=may not play much)

PG/1 Starter: Jaylen Hands. Backup: David Singleton*

SG/2 Starter: Wide Open. Players to receive significant minutes: Prince Ali, Jules Bernard, David Singleton

SF/3 Starter: Kris Wilkes. Backup: Jules Bernard*, Chris Smith

PF/4 Starter: Cody Riley. Backup: Chris Smith, Kris Wilkes*, Jalen Hill

C/5 Starter: Moses Brown. Backup: Cody Riley*, Kenneth Nwuba

This team is still loaded. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Yes, questions hang over Hand,s but I would rather have a question of whether a guy can hit his potential versus questions about whether a guy has the potential to play at the Pac-12 level. Steve Alford deserves credit for recruiting and maintaining a team so deep that it can take three injuries. He will deserve blame if a team with this much talent underachieves. He needs to win the Pac-12 and/or make a deep run. To be clear, I would feel different if the injuries were to Wilkes, Hands and Brown, but they are not. This is a loaded team that any good coach would love to have.