For the first time in ten years, UCLA enters a season without Ben Howland at the helm. Instead, the Bruins will be coached by Steve Alford, the former head coach of New Mexico and Iowa, and former star of the golden age of Indiana basketball.
Alford brings with him the motion offense from his mentor, Bob Knight, and an emphasis on man defense. That's not to say, though, that he has the utter devotion to man defense that his predecessor had. Already through two exhibition games, UCLA has played a considerable amount of zone, and Ed Schilling, Alford's friend and assistant coach, is a noted teacher of zone defense. Whether the team plays zone or man defense could prove to be one of the more significant questions of the season, since, through the first couple of games, it seems that the team might be more athletically suited to zone than to man.
There are fewer questions about the offense. The Bruins are clearly going to try to be an up tempo team this year, showing through the first two exhibition games that they will run off both makes and misses. Zach LaVine and Jordan Adams have already shown that they can be devastating in transition, and Adams, in particular, can do so many things in transition and semi-transition that he'll be very tough to guard if UCLA commits to that running style. Just judging by the play through practices we've seen and the first two games, we'd be shocked if UCLA didn't play at least as fast as last year, which was Howland's most up tempo team at UCLA by far.
Depth is an issue. With just ten scholarship players available, and just four real post players, UCLA will likely have to opt for some unconventional lineups at times. The Bruins have just one true five, in Tony Parker, and no true point guard (meaning someone who can play the point on one end and guard it on the other). It's one of many reasons why a zone might make sense, since UCLA won't have to switch as many matchups to avoid Anderson having to guard a 5'10 point guard.
The expectations are trickier to judge than either the offense or the defense. Last year, UCLA won the Pac-12, thanks in large part to the freshman class of Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson, and Shabazz Muhammad, all of whom were starters by the midpoint of the season. This year, the Pac-12 should be somewhat improved, which could make it a tougher road for UCLA, especially with the loss of Muhammad to the NBA draft. Zach LaVine, who has more upside than Muhammad and projects to be a better player long term, is not the college-ready scorer that Muhammad was, and will likely need more time before he can become that level of producer. That said, with the team coming off of winning the regular season Pac-12 title, there's an expectation that the Bruins will once again be in contention for the league title. Falling well short of that expectation could prove to be a significant obstacle to Alford.
It's an interesting first season for Alford. He had to deal with an initial outburst of disappointment with his hire that was immediately followed by angry public reaction to his handling of his initial press conference. It has seemingly removed some of the first year grace period that most new coaches enjoy. Then, with the amount of returning talent UCLA has, it's at least somewhat justified for UCLA fans to expect a year within shouting distance of last season, when the Bruins won the Pac-12 and likely would have earned a top four or five seed had Adams not been injured. How Alford manages the team and those expectations this year could give us a very interesting glimpse into how the Alford-era at UCLA could turn out.
GUARDS AND WINGS
As has been the case for a number of years now, save this last one when Larry Drew had his one season as a Bruin, one of the primary questions for UCLA heading into the season is the point guard position. There simply isn't a true point guard on the team. Kyle Anderson, the 6'8 sophomore, is an unorthodox option at the one. He has the ability to play point guard on offense, and has flashed some exceptional vision and passing ability at times. The issue for him is that, at 6'8 and without good quickness, he would have difficulty guarding most high level wings, let alone point guards. Bryce Alford, who has gotten the primary backup point minutes during the two exhibition games, doesn't have the same level of vision or feel for the position, and also looks as if he'd struggle to guard quicker players. Neither player could be counted on to play and guard the one, which is what you'd ideally like from your starting point guard.
Anderson, though, provides some significant strengths on offense, and through the first two exhibitions, seems to be a different player than last year, when he was stifled at times by having to play the three and four in Howland's offense. With the ball in his hands, he's shown real ability as a distributor, and, admittedly against weak competition, has shown an ability, in his herky-jerky way, to take his man off the dribble and drive to the hoop. Although it's a small sample size, he also looks like he's improved his stroke a bit from the outside. It's still a long, slow motion, but it's shorter than it was last season.
Alford hasn't shown as well through the two exhibition games, and while you don't want to ever take too much from just two games, no matter the competition, his play did cause some concern. Defensively, he didn't appear to have a good feel for either man or zone, and didn't show good enough lateral quickness to be a good man defender. Offensively, he went out of control at times, throwing some head-scratching passes, but he did mix in a few nicer passes. Generally, though, he hasn't shown the feel you'd want from a true point guard. He hasn't shot the ball well through many of the practices or games we've seen, but that could simply be an aberration. For now, with the seeming lack of options, it looks like he'll get the vast majority of the backup point guard minutes.
Zach LaVine, the freshman wing and highest rated recruit in UCLA's 2013 class, has also had some issues defensively through the first two games, but has made up for it with some spectacular play on the offensive side of the ball. He's become famed for his dunking ability, and through the first two exhibitions, he had a handful of big breakaway dunks that UCLA really haven't seen with consistency since Russell Westbrook took his talents to the NBA. He's the athlete that UCLA has been missing through the last few years under Howland, with very good quickness and tremendous length. Like most freshmen, he could use work on his shot selection, but he has a good stroke from the outside, and could develop into a very good shooter down the road. Defensively, his issues aren't athletic as much as they are mental—like Alford, he just hasn't shown a good feel for that end of the court. With LaVine, though, it's easy to see that he has the athletic ability to be a good man defender, and with his length, a potentially devastating zone defender.
We've gotten this far into the breakdown without mentioning Jordan Adams, who is almost certainly going to be UCLA's best player this year, as he was for much of last year. Adams, who broke his foot in the Pac-12 Tournament last year, made his return to the practice court over the last month, and appears to be very close to 100% through the first two games. Despite not being able to shoot true jump shots for months after the injury, his stroke doesn't appear to have suffered, and, through the two exhibition games, still showed a very good feel for the mid-range game. Body-wise, he might be carrying a little bit more weight than he was carrying at the beginning of last year, but he seems pretty similar, quickness-wise, to last year. With Shabazz Muhammad now in the NBA, Adams will likely be UCLA's primary offensive option, and, with the new up-tempo pace, should be able to replicate much of the production that Muhammad brought to the table. Defensively, while Adams just doesn't have the natural athleticism to be a great man defender, he's crafty, and has shown over the last year that he has a knack for getting steals, which should help to give the Bruins more transition opportunities.
Norman Powell, through two games, looks like a completely different person, in terms of overall confidence in his game. Last year, particularly toward the end of the year when his minutes had been cut, he looked like he was pressing every time he was on the court, and looked like he wasn't enjoying the game very much. If there's one guy who you can easily say was helped by the coaching change, no matter who the new coach ended up being, it's Powell. Through the first two exhibitions, he's been more under control than at any time under Howland, but has also shown that he's improved his skills from a year ago. Against San Bernardino, he took his man off the dribble from the perimeter for a nice lay-in, and against San Marcos, he had a very nice jump stop and assist to a teammate underneath the basket. Now, obviously, he'll need to replicate those kinds of moments against much better opponents, but early on, this looks like it could be the season where Powell makes a bit of a leap. Defensively, he's already shown that he is the best man defender on the team, and is probably the best zone defender right now as well. Coach Alford likely will want to run a considerable amount of man defense, at least to start the year, and if that's the case, you have to figure that Powell is going to figure significantly into his plans.
Noah Allen didn't show much through the first two exhibitions to indicate that he'll play a big role this season. He has good length, but isn't much of an athlete, and hasn't shown a great feel for the offense at this point. If he plays this year, we'd have to imagine it'll be the kind of role where he's playing under ten minutes per game. If not, it'll likely mean UCLA has suffered some injuries. Isaac Hamilton, who enrolled at UCLA in June after leaving UTEP, is ineligible this season and will play as a sophomore next year.
The rotation is going to be an interesting thing to watch. As of now, it looks like Anderson will get the primary minutes at the one, with Alford backing him up. Powell and Adams have started on the wing, with LaVine and Allen providing backup minutes to both. LaVine has shown enough through the first two games that we'd have to expect he will see an increase in minutes and playing time as the season goes on. The question is where those minutes will come from. As the primary backup on the wing, he is currently spelling Powell and Adams, both of whom have played well through the early going. LaVine could supplant Powell as the starter, which may happen, but Coach Alford has shown a propensity for wanting to start veterans.
As we wrote about, UCLA could try to get LaVine more minutes as the backup point guard. Coach Alford has mentioned several times that his system doesn't require a true point guard, which is good, because UCLA doesn't have one. Bryce Alford looks like he might become overmatched at this stage going against higher level guards, so LaVine could carve out a bit more of a role there. It'll be a question of how comfortable coach Alford can become with LaVine running his motion offense. The matter of who ends up the backup point guard will be an interesting one to watch in the early going.
UCLA is extremely light on bigs, with just four true post players on scholarship. Only three of those players are known quantities, with freshman forward Wanaah Bail still sitting out while recovering from knee surgery. Bail, if you'll remember, signed with Texas Tech out of high school but left the Red Raiders' program after a few weeks. He then enrolled at UCLA this offseason and saw his petition for immediate eligibility granted by the NCAA last month. He had knee surgery in June, and, from what we've heard, is still in the recovery process, and likely won't return to the court for a couple more weeks. When he does return, the expectation is that he will provide an athletic boost for UCLA, particularly on the defensive end, and give the Bruins a much-needed extra body in the post.
As a true five, UCLA has just Tony Parker, the sophomore center who played sparingly under Howland last season and actually thought about transferring at several points last year and over the offseason. Parker ultimately decided to stay at UCLA after Howland was fired, and committed himself to improving his body in the offseason, losing 20 pounds in the process. He does appear quicker, which will no doubt improve his overall production and ability to stay on the court. Last year, many of his issues stemmed from a lack of quickness, particularly on the defensive end, where he had an alarming foul rate because he couldn't move his feel very well. That side of the ball should be improved, although through two exhibitions he still didn't show a very good feel for post defense. On offense, he's more of a mixed bag. He doesn't have bad touch, and actually swished a nice turnaround jumper in the last exhibition, but his footwork and feel could use work. He has already committed a few traveling violations, in addition to a couple of offensive fouls through the first two exhibitions. He put up big numbers in the last exhibition, but San Marcos had a very short squad, making it relatively easy for Parker to get rebounds. In many ways, Parker could be a linchpin for the team this year. If he can provide UCLA solid minutes at the five, it could alleviate many of the depth issues in the post, potentially allowing Travis Wear to slide back to his more natural four position.
David Wear has elected to wear a t-shirt under his jersey in a switch from last year, but otherwise seems pretty similar to the player he was last season. He has issues on defense, but still has a good touch on his mid-range shot. He'll likely be strictly a four this year, with his brother the more likely of the two to play some five. David Wear actually looks like he's trimmed down some from last year, looking a little less muscular.
Travis Wear sat out the two exhibition games, but he'll likely be UCLA's best post player, unless Parker makes a considerable leap. Travis became almost automatic from mid-range and worst-shot-in-basketball-range (with his heels on the three point line) at points last year, and you'd have to figure that in Alford's motion offense, he'll get opportunities to knock in shots from the outside, even when he's ostensibly playing the four or five. He and his brother both have deficiencies on defense and as defensive rebounders, and, as we said under Howland, would likely be able to mask those deficiencies to a certain extent in a zone. Travis sat out the two exhibitions, and will likely sit out for another week and change while recovering from having his appendix removed.
It's going to be a tricky year for UCLA in its use of bigs. With only two true post players healthy at the moment, UCLA has had to have Kyle Anderson in the post at times, and has also used some four guard lineups. We'd have to imagine they'll have to do similar things throughout the year, depending on foul trouble and the readiness of Bail and Parker to play major minutes. It's not a deep team in general, with only nine men in the rotation as a best case scenario. Foul trouble to big men could cause significant ramifications throughout the squad, so it'll be important for Parker especially to stay on the court more than he was able to last year.
Even compared to the relatively free-flowing "early offense" from Ben Howland last year, Steve Alford's offensive tempo through the first two games has been much faster. It's a good sign, actually, considering that, judging by advanced statistics, Alford's New Mexico teams were actually slightly on the slower side. With more offensive talent, though, it seems as if Alford has committed to the idea of going faster on offense, at least through the two exhibition games. He's repeatedly said throughout the preseason press conferences that he wants the team to go fast, and, in a really stunning comment for those of us still reeling from the Howland years, has talked about wanting the team to run after made baskets as well as misses. There was a play during the San Marcos game where UCLA advanced the ball quicker after a made basket than they had at any point since Kevin Love was launching outlet passes (the play resulted in a LaVine dunk).
Transition scoring has been the primary form of offense for UCLA so far this year, but that'll likely be more difficult to come by as the year goes on and the Bruins face better athletes than San Marcos and San Bernardino are able to put on the court. The motion offense, from what we've seen, looks like a scheme that will allow UCLA's players a bit more offensive freedom than they were given under Howland. Powell, as we mentioned above, already looks like a different player in the system, and we could see this system really playing to his strengths.
As with last year, you have to expect that UCLA is going to have to win games with its offense, and it looks as if the coaching staff understands that, opting for an offensive style that emphasizes running and increasing the number of possessions in the game. And, as with last year, we have to imagine there will be games where UCLA simply goes cold, and loses a game or two that it probably shouldn't, based off the talent disparity. That said, if UCLA plays faster than it even did last year, with an increase in the number of possessions, we'd expect less variance than the Bruins experienced last year.
It's going to be an odd experience for UCLA fans, after years of Howland, to watch an offense that, at least at this early stage, appears to be a free-flowing one. Timeouts after made baskets may be a thing of the past in this brave, new world.
On the defensive side of the court, the new coaching staff inherits many of the same issues from the last two years of Howland. The team lacks elite athleticism at guard and forward, which limits the upside of any man defense. Ben Howland, one of the best teachers of man defense in the country, struggled to implement effective man defenses over the last two or three years, so, like we've said for years, it might simply be best to opt for a zone defense.
Looking at the personnel, there's an argument that UCLA has the talent to have not just a decent zone defense, but a potentially very good one. Kyle Anderson and Zach LaVine have good length up top, and Adams has already shown through his short college career that he has very active hands. Powell, as we said above, is UCLA's best man defender, and is a good zone defenders as well. The zone uses UCLA's size to its advantage, making it very difficult for teams to penetrate against the long arms of UCLA's defenders. Perhaps tipping the balance in favor of the zone even more is that assistant coach Ed Schilling is known as a zone-defense guru in basketball circles. Already, UCLA has used a variety of zone defenses, including primarily a 2-3 zone and a 1-2-2, in addition to the much more prevalent man defense.
The man itself almost looks like a zone, with a sagging, switching defense working primarily as UCLA's man. UCLA's man has not been good so far this year, against either of the exhibition opponents, with lack of intensity being a primary issue. Much of that might be due to the fact that the two games were exhibitions, but there are certain athletic limitations that make man defense a difficult option for this personnel.
Coach Alford has already shown, though, that he will run different defenses mid game, which is a welcome switch from Howland. Simply zoning an inbounds play, which is common practice among coaches throughout the country including Alford, was something Howland didn't do. Given that seeming elasticity in approach, we'd anticipate that Alford will opt more and more for zone as time goes on. Already, through two games, it looks like UCLA went much more to zone against San Marcos than it did against San Bernardino.
It's going to be an interesting thing to watch, and probably one of the big keys for UCLA's season. With a zone defense, you have to suspect that UCLA will have a chance to be at least adequate on that end of the court, giving the offense enough stops to generate points in transition. It should be a very interesting year, with a new coach for the first time in ten years, who has brought with him a new offensive scheme and new defensive philosophies. With the talent UCLA has at its disposal this year, particularly on offense, it should also be a successful one.
Coming Friday, our prediction for the 2013-14 season...
Hoops Season Preview: The Team
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