UCLA Bruins

Top 25 Countdown: No. 16 UCLA under pressure this season

03 December 2015: UCLA (20) Bryce Alford celebrates with UCLA (43) Jonah Bolden and UCLA (10) Isaac Hamilton after a foul call during an NCAA basketball game between the Kentucky Wildcats and the UCLA Bruins at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire)
Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire

Ball don’t lie — at least, No. 16 UCLA hopes that is the case in the coming season.

The arrival of mega-prospect Lonzo Ball brings optimism at a time the most decorated program in college basketball needs it. UCLA missed the postseason a season ago, despite entering the preseason Top 25 and peaking in the polls with a December win over Kentucky. The Bruins’ 15-17 finish came on the heels of a Sweet 16 run in 2015, albeit one made after earning what amounted to one of the final bids into the NCAA Tournament.

After an impressive first season at UCLA, which culminated in a Pac-12 Tournament championship, head coach Steve Alford does indeed need Ball to be the truth.

Fortunately for Alford and the Bruins, the freshman is hardly alone in the drive to make UCLA a contender in the Pac-12. Ball joins a talented, veteran roster, led by the perimeter duo of Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton.

Hamilton led the Bruins a season ago at 16.8 points per game, with Alford right behind at 16.1. The surprising ascension of freshman Aaron Holiday gave UCLA an offensively potent backcourt, combining to average better than 43 points per game.

The trio of veterans and Ball combine to form one of the most impressive perimeters in the Pac-12, if not college basketball. Add sophomore Prince Ali’s explosive potential, and Steve Alford can go as deep with his guard rotation as any coach in America. Getting consistency from the frontcourt, particularly with the departure of low-post presence Tony Parker, will be critical.

Stretch-four Thomas Welsh developed into a solid weapon for the Bruins’ offense, averaging better than 11 points per game on 59 percent shooting from the floor. Welsh also led the Bruins in rebounding at 8.5 points per game.

He’s a cornerstone up front, but needs support from a new face. UCLA adds size from 6-foot-10 freshman Ike Anigbogu, and five-star recruit T.J. Leaf could be an immediate difference-maker. However, the onus is squarely on the corps of returning bigs to step up. G.G. Goloman showed flashes of quality last season, but played in just 15 games.

The development of the Bruins’ frontcourt will have an impact on the play of the guards as well. Bryce Alford endured some criticism for his streaky shooting a season ago — his field-goal percentage on the campaign dipped below 40. He was solid from 3-point range, hovering around 37 percent, but hardly lights out.

However, the flow of games often dictated more of the offense coming through the point guard. Parker was often plagued with foul trouble, committing 103 fouls for the year, and averaging just 25 minutes per game as a result of the whistles against him.

With few consistent options off the bench, the Bruins ran more of a 4-out offense, which often looked like more of a 5-out, with Welsh being better suited to facing up than with his back to the basket.

The arrival of another likely scorer in Ball, and at least one of the frontcourt players emerging as a consistent threat, should change Alford’s role to more of a distributor. His ability to shoot from deep should evolve into more of an asset than a focal point in the Bruin offense, if all goes according to plan.

Novembers have recently been hard on UCLA, and with Steve Alford molding a new-look roster in the early going, the first few weeks of the upcoming campaign appear to be favorable. The Bruins ease in with a quartet of mid-major California opponents: Pacific, Cal State-Northridge, San Diego, and Long Beach State; only the last one, on Nov. 20, has a good chance to spring an upset.

The adjustment period is brief, however. Those opening two weeks lead into the Wooden Legacy Classic in Anaheim, then a December gauntlet that includes a road trip to Kentucky, Michigan visiting Pauley Pavilion, and a neutral-court date with Ohio State in Las Vegas.

Alford’s level of pressure should be well established by the time UCLA reaches Pac-12 play. The Bruins enter 2016-’17 looking up at Arizona and Oregon, but have the upside to contend with either. The most important point of UCLA’s Pac-12 docket, beyond contending for the conference championship, is exacting revenge on USC.

The Trojans swept a trifecta from the Bruins last season in dominant fashion, Andy Enfield’s receipt for sustaining some lopsided beatdowns against UCLA his first two years in the conference. The battle for Los Angeles supremacy will play a central role in the Pac-12 race in 2016-’17.

UCLA hopes it will gain the upper hand this time.

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