It’s an interesting time in Westwood. On paper, UCLA has been one of the most successful programs in the country over the last two years with Steve Alford, but on the court, the Bruins have failed to display the elite performances that fans have come to expect.
Still, fans remain hopeful that next season can be the start of something great with Alford.
As mentioned, UCLA’s performance over the last two seasons has been interesting to say the least. During that period, the Bruins compiled a 50-23 overall record and went to back-to-back Sweet Sixteens, which looks great on its face. Unfortunately, the team also failed to win the Pac-12 regular season title, never lost fewer than six conference games in a decent, but not great Pac -12, and had to rely on some luck to even make the Big Dance in 2015 and a blown call to advance past SMU in the Round of 64.
The advanced stats seem to imply that UCLA was a pretty good team over the last few seasons as they finished within the top 35 in KenPom’s efficiency ratings in both seasons, but even then, the Bruins did drop 18 spots last year. And considering that this is a program with 11 national championships and 18 trips to the Final Four, finishing in the top 35 typically isn’t considered a major achievement. Having a coach with some question marks heading into year three isn’t all that uncommon, but it is an interesting dynamic for one of the nation’s top programs.
Of course, now the focus is on next season, where Alford and the Bruins have the opportunity to change some of the discussion on his tenure and do some damage in a Pac 12 that might not have a clear championship caliber team due to Arizona’s offseason losses. UCLA will always be judged on what it does in the NCAA Tournament first and foremost, but if the Bruins can show more consistency in regular season play, it would go a long way toward helping the team reach its long-term goals and maybe avoid some of those top teams like Florida and Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen next season.
Unfortunately, the Bruins will have to overcome some major offseason losses if they are going to make progress as a team. The biggest losses are set to come on the wing where UCLA loses Kevon Looney and Normal Powell. Both Looney and Powell finished in the top four on the roster in minutes, field goal attempts, points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals. Saying they had a big impact would be underselling it to say the least.
There are some options on the roster to could help alleviate these losses, but there are some serious question marks on the returning roster for this position. Isaac Hamilton returns and contributed pretty well despite not getting the ball all that often last season, but it’s likely the Bruins want to continue using him at shooting guard.
UCLA also returns Noah Allen and Gyorgy Goloman, but neither comes with incredible recruiting prowess – both were rated as 3-stars by ESPN – and both played under 30 percent of the team’s minutes last year with offensive ratings under 90. Maybe one or both of these guys can step up, but it’s probably a tad unrealistic to think Allen and Goloman are suddenly going to go from decent, but not great bench options to major contributors just because they’re a year older.
The good news is that the team has two clear options on the wing that could not only see the floor early, but potentially make an instant impact for the team. The one that will likely draw the most excitement is incoming four-star prospect Prince Ali, but the other potential wildcard is returning forward Jonah Bolden, who was rated as a four-star prospect before being ruled ineligible for last season.
There’s no denying that both Ali and Bolden are big question marks. Ali is probably not a perfect positional fit if he’s asked to play in a forward position and though many believe Bolden should be better than when he arrived to UCLA with a year in the college ranks, he also underwent offseason knee surgery and will miss much of the summer due to recovery. He is expected to recover fully, but nobody outside the program can even be quite sure what he even was before entering the surgery since he has yet to actually contribute on the court due to his NCAA issues.
Still, there’s a reason why these two players received such high grades out of high school. Ali should have the defensive skillset and playmaking ability to really contribute to UCLA next season and Bolden’s unique combination of size and athleticism give him a sky high ceiling for development. If these two players can come in and produce as most expect, they could alleviate much of UCLA’s wing issues. Plus, when you add in players like Allen and Goloman, there should be at least decent depth to go along with two solid starters as well.
UCLA will have some major questions on the wing heading into next season, but if its new contributors highlighted by Prince Ali and Jonah Bolden can make an impact, the Bruins not only could maintain their success over the last two years, but might even be able to start trending up. If so, it could be an exciting time in the next few years to get behind the Bruins.