UCLA BASKETBALL


 

In the spring of 2016, the only games that UCLA Basketball men’s head coach Steve Alford got to watch came from the comfort of his couch. Prior to that, since 2008, Alford’s teams had made it to the NCAA tournament in five of the prior eight seasons, and was at least invited to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) in those other three years. He led the usually-overlooked New Mexico Lobos to two appearances in the Round of 32 (in 2010 and 2013), and a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2012.

Steve Alford

When UCLA lured him to Westwood with a seven-year, $18.2-million contract in 2013, Alford repaid them with a 28-9 record, Pac-12 championship, and Sweet Sixteen appearance in his first season. He then followed that up with another Sweet 16 appearance in 2015, when the 11th-seeded Bruins upset the 6th-seeded SMU in the opening round, and then defeated UAB in the Round of 32.

But 2015 marked a big step back for Alford and the Bruins. UCLA finished with a 15-17 record, marking only the second time the Bruins had a losing record in the past decade, and their 10th place finish in the Pac-12 was their worst rank in multiple decades. In Westwood, that’s the type of stuff that can take any coach right from the penthouse to the outhouse. The school, the alumni, and the fans of UCLA simply won’t stand for such infamy. After all, Alford’s predecessor, Ben Howland, was fired as head coach because he hadn’t led the Bruins past the second round of the tournament in his last five years as coach, yet he had still led the Bruins to the best record in the Pac-12 the season immediately preceding his dismissal.

For Alford, it was the first time he had finished a season with more losses than wins since 1999. He’s simply not accustomed to this type of losing. In his 25 years as a coach, he’s only had three losing seasons (including 2015). He took tiny Southwest Missouri State, the University of Iowa, and the University of New Mexico to the NCAA Tournament; none of those schools would be classified as basketball powerhouses.

During his playing days, Alford played under legendary head coach Bob Knight at the University of Indiana, and became the university’s all-time leading scorer, as well as the only player to date to be named team MVP four times. He was a member of the 1986-1987 Hoosiers championship team that defeated Syracuse University. In other words: losing simply didn’t exist in Alford’s universe. So, this type of setback, at one of the most prestigious — and pressure-filled — universities, wasn’t acceptable

FRESHMEN PHENOMS

Thankfully, Alford and the Bruins got some serious reinforcement over the off-season, in the form of two of the top 20 basketball recruits in the nation — both of whom happen to be from southern California. Point guard Lonzo Ball from Chino Hills was ranked by many analysts as the top point guard recruit in the nation, and a top three recruit overall. TJ Leaf, a power forward from El Cajon, was ranked by many services as one of the top 15 prospects in the nation as well. The coaches, the school, and the fans undoubtedly saw both players as the building blocks needed to get the program back to its winning ways.

Lonzo Ball

Ball is the type of point guard prospects that modern day basketball coaches — and NBA scouts — absolutely fawn over. He’s a tall (6’5) point guard that has the height and the length to whip passes all over the court. He’s arguably the most gifted passer of any prospect in the country, showing extraordinary vision, timing, and accuracy when facilitating all different parts of the offense. And if an offense decides they want to play off Ball, he’s shown an effective mid-range jumper that stretches as far as 28 feet.

Similarly, Leaf’s skill-set not only translates beautifully into the modern style of basketball, but also makes him a perfect fit to play alongside Ball. The highly athletic, sweet-shooting six-foot-ten forward is the prototype “stretch four” that NBA teams so desperately covet these days. He’s got a polished face-up game where he can use his jab step to create separation from defenders. He can run the fast break and finish with an electrifying dunk if needed, or simply stop on a dime, rise up, and nail a jump shot from anywhere.

Two months through the 2016-2017 season, Ball and Leaf are returning dividends that would make any Bruins supporter proud. Just about midway through January, the Bruins are ranked among the top five teams in the nation, and mentioned among the three best teams in the nation among many analysts’ current power rankings. They’re one of only six teams in the nation to lose one or less games so far. Earlier this year, UCLA defeated then #1-ranked Kentucky, going into Rupp Arena and winning their first-ever game there; prior to that game, Kentucky had won 42 straight home games.

Ball might be the best player so far, among all the incredible incredibly talented freshmen entering the college ranks this year. He’s currently second in the nation in assists, and averaging over 14 points, eight assists, and five rebounds per game. Even with those stats, the most impressive numbers might be his 3.46-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio (incredible efficiency for a first year player), and his 43% three-point conversions. Leaf, along with teammates Isaac Hamilton, Aaron Holiday, and Bryce Alford, have the confidence to do whatever they can to get open, knowing that Ball will be able to deliver the ball to them at almost impossible angles. Unsurprisingly, Leaf has particularly benefited from Ball’s ability to set him up at the perfect moment, converting on a startling 70%+ of his two-point shots. He currently leads the Bruins, scoring over 17 points per game, and pulling down a team-high 9.1 rebounds per game.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Many thought that Ball’s arrival could potentially create chemistry issues in the back-court where Alford has been “the guy” for the past few years, but the fast-moving, unselfish style of play that Ball has brought to the team has rubbed off on all his teammates — including the seniors.

While the Bruins might be looking up at other teams in the Pac-12 standings, most people view them as, far and away, the best team in the conference. If they keep up this level of play through the early spring, it wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprising to see Steve Alford’s Bruins go from 10th in the conference, to #1. UCLA Basketball is back and college basketball is better because of it.


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14 thoughts on “UCLA BASKETBALL”

  1. JeffWA says:

    Hi Rob,
    Coming up fast towards the age of 60, (turning that age this summer) I remember in my youth how great the UCLA men’s basketball program was in the mid-60s through mid-70s. They had the greatest college coach of all-time in John Wooden. Living in NC now, (originally from CT) the local-yokels who live and drink Duke University basketball believe that Mike Krzyzewski is the greatest men’s college coach in history. And they would be completely wrong as his 5 NCAA titles represent exactly half of what Coach Wooden earned in his illustrious career. And Krzyewski, now almost 70 years old has zero chance of reaching the late, great John Wooden’s career title record!

    This year’s UCLA team is outstanding. I remember there Coach Steve Alford as a college player, as you mentioned who played under Bobby Knight at Indiana back in the mid/late 1980s. Alford was a member on the last championship team that Indiana won back in 1987 when one of their players hit a game winning shot at the buzzer to knock off Syracuse.

    Alford has so far molded an exciting team that scores on fastbreaks through precision passing as well as excelling from beyond the 3 point line.

    It is commendable that one of their players Isaac Hamilton returned to the team for his senior year, instead of jumping to the pros when he probably was not ready. His younger brother Daniel played 2 seasons at my alma mater UConn. Then last year against the advice of his coach, and NBA scouts as he did not project well no where near the player he could have been with more development, Daniel with $$ signs in front of his eyes stupidly decided to turn pro. He went un-drafted. Signed as a free-agent, Daniel languishes on the bench of a team hardly ever seeing the court. Foolish move as really Daniel probably did not even listen to the advice of his older brother, Isaac to just stay in school and further develop his game.

    I caught a game last week on television UCLA versus CA. It was made more enjoyable as one of the greatest players in UCLA history, Bill Walton was the analyst, He is entertaining to listen to in any game often referring to the PAC-12 conference as the “conference of champions”. Walton also unabashedly roots for UCLA during the games which actually is quite funny to listen to.

    Anyway, the two freshman players Lorenzo Ball and TJ Leaf are turning out to be monster players for this year’s Bruins squad with their all-court play.

    Of course with men’s college basketball now having so much depth, it truly is difficult to guarantee any team making it to the Final Four and competing for the national championship. However this year’s UCLA team which you provided such an in-depth analysis in your review article, seems to be on the right path towards perhaps getting the school’s first championship since 1995.

    Very enjoyable article, Rob,
    Jeff

    1. Rob Giannotti says:

      Hi Jeff,

      I just want to start by saying I really appreciate your comments. I know that you have commented on a few of my articles before and you are without a doubt the best person to ever comment on my site in the 14 months that I have had it. It is people like you that make me want to write even better articles. I also love the fact that you are a huge sports fan who knows what he is talking about. It is really refreshing to have you comment on my site. I completely agree with you on Daniel Hamilton. Very bad decision by him. In regards to this years UCLA team, I have stayed up very late watching them this year. I can say they are for real. The 2 freshmen are the main reasons why. They were both top 15 high school prospects in the country last season. Lonzo Ball might be the number 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. He is that good. Leaf has also played excellent. I love your point on the parity in college basketball. There is no 1 dominant team, which will make March Madness real exciting this year. I can talk for ever on basketball but I really just want to thank you again for your long and unbelievable comment on this article. You really took a lot of time to write and it is greatly appreciated.

      -Rob

  2. steven says:

    As a sports fan I enjoyed your site. There was a lot of good information and some great statistics. I lked that you also had products available. As the huge sports fan that I am I also do a lot of fantasy sports. Maybe you could include some articles with advice on starting lineups for college sports

    1. Rob Giannotti says:

      Hello,

      I appreciate your comments. Fantasy sports is something that is being considered as I play myself. Fantasy sports have become extremely popular in the last few years where it is definitely an option. Thank you for the advice. Try and visit again. You might just see some fantasy sports article on the website.

      -Rob

  3. Jonathan says:

    I’m a huge sports fan and I have to say I really loved this web site! It is very detailed and so clean, loved reading the articles. I really like how your menu is set up. Keep up the good work with this page and I will come back again for sure !

    1. Rob Giannotti says:

      Hello,

      Thank you for the compliments. I really appreciate it. You should definitely come back and visit the site. We will have all the March Madness coverage that you could want. Also, we will have NBA Draft coverage and profiles of all the top high school and NBA Draft prospects. And much more.

      -Rob

  4. Robert Junk says:

    UCLA basketball is a proud and rich tradition program. It’s great to see UCLA back on top where it belongs College basketball is better when a program like UCLA is back on top with the other rich tradition programs in the country. As a Kansas Jayhawk fan, I am happy to see them competing with the best.

    1. Rob Giannotti says:

      HI,

      It is great to see UCLA back in the spotlight. It is amazing how 2 freshmen are leading the way for the Bruins. They play a fun brand of basketball to watch. As a Jayhawk fan, you must be happy. Bill Self has done an extraordinary job with them for the last decade. It is great for college basketball fans to have Kansas and UCLA among the nations elite. These are 2 teams and colleges that the casual fans know about. There traditions rival any other colleges.

      -Rob

  5. JSC says:

    Great article and it’s good to see the Bruins back in the National spotlight! How far do you see them going in the NCAA tournament? I believe they are a legitimate Final 4 contender. I also feel Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf can carry them on their backs even though they are only freshmen. Are you going to have March Madness coverage this year?

    1. Hello JSC,
      We also believe UCLA is a team that can make the Final 4. Steve Alford has done a great job as head coach this year. The 2 freshmen have been the difference for this team. hey have been as good as advertised. Ball might be the number 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. He is special. Yes, we will be having extensive coverage of the NCAA tournament as well. We will provide the viewers with all the necessary information they need to know for all 68 teams. We will let everyone know when the coverage starts.
      -Rob

  6. John McGuinness says:

    As a follower of Alford through his escapades with Bobby Knight and his tenures with Iowa and New Mexico, I enjoyed your article and it is great to see UCLA emerging from what has been some dormant years.

    1. Hello,
      I appreciate the kind words. Alford really needed to have a good season after a very disappointing 2015-16. He had a great recruiting class as Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf have been outstanding. They probably saved him from getting fired. Things are definitely looking up for UCLA. Although Ball will most likely enter the 2017 NBA Draft, his younger brother is committed to UCLA and will be there next season. He is highly touted. There is also another Ball brother who will be at UCLA in a few years. He is also an excellent prospect. Recruiting is about 80% of coaching. You need players in order to win. Alford is having great success on the recruiting trail, which leads to having a chance for good teams.
      -Rob

  7. Marc says:

    I am a Basketball fan and I really enjoyed your write up that UCLA is back. It certainly needs to be this way when you think of college ball. Your design really stands out and I like how you have some great shopping options included. One small typo I noticed was where you talked about coach being part of the 1986-1987 Hoosiers Championship. 1986 is 1966. Only item I saw. Keep up great work.

    1. Rob Giannotti says:

      Hello,

      It is certainly a great site to see UCLA basketball back among the nations elite. The 2 freshmen that is talked about in the article have played pivotal roles in the rebound from a disappointing 2015-16 season. Thus further illustrates the importance of recruiting at a high level.

      -Rob

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