You could say the season completely lived up to expectation. We have said a few times in the past that expectation for this team would be to go to the Sweet 16. It certainly didn't go beyond it -- that would have been a win in the Sweet 16 against Florida.
The overall record of 28-9 is in line with expectation.
The entire season went about as you might expect – UCLA didn't lose too many games you expected it to win, and it didn't win too many games you expected it to lose.
Most of the season, though, felt like the team hadn't found itself. It ran over its cupcake non-conference schedule, but lost to its most challenging non-conference opponents, Missouri and Duke. It played a couple of good games along the way, but most of the time didn't look committed to consistently playing hard. It couldn't get over the hump of sweeping a road game, struggling to find focus and intensity in the second game of the trip. When the Bruins really took it to Cal at Berkeley February 19th, hopes were that the team had turned the corner on the season. But it subsequently lost two in a row, at Stanford and then at home against Oregon, in a game without Kyle Anderson or Jordan Adams, who were suspended for a violation of team rules.
At that point, it felt like the season could go just about any direction.
As with so many teams in any season, a big loss was a catalyst then for putting it together to a degree. UCLA's 18-point loss to end the regular season in Pullman against Washington State, one of the worst teams in a major college basketball conference, resulted in UCLA playing its best basketball of the season. In the quarter-finals of the Pac-12 Tournament, UCLA beat up on Oregon, 82-63, and did it in a beautiful way, with exceptional offensive execution. That level of play continued in the semi-final against Stanford, 84-69, and then culminated in perhaps the best game of the season – UCLA beating Arizona in the championship of the Pac-12 Tournament, 75-71.
The Bruins hadn't beaten anyone you expected them to lose to all season – except Arizona in the Pac-12 final.
That run in the Pac-12 Tournament, and that win over Arizona, garnered UCLA a 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That win enabled UCLA to play a 13 seed in the round of 64, Tulsa, and then a 12 seed in Round of 32, Stephen F. Austin. UCLA continued its newfound sharp play, generally, in both of those wins against over-matched teams, but UCLA getting to the Sweet 16 was really a result of it getting the 4 seed after beating Arizona in the Pac-12 Championship. That game made UCLA's season.
The team never really found its identity for most of the season. It plainly wasn't a good defensive team, and while its defense got a bit better as the season progressed, it still was limited by a lack of athleticism. UCLA's sagging man defense emerged as the better option than the zone by the end of the season, but it still, at its best, wasn't an exceptional defense.
The Bruins did run quite a bit and did it well. But transition scoring most of the time only allows you to blow out teams you'd beat anyway.
Kyle Anderson, though, changed the paradigm. He is one of the most unique players in college basketball, at 6-8 and a point guard, with an uncommon skill set. He continued to assert himself throughout the season, and his ability to run an offense proved to be the defining trait of the team. Jordan Adams, who has a penchant for being out of control at times, started to play more strictly within the boundaries of Steve Alford's offense. Travis Wear and David Wear were integral parts of the offense, not only in their ability to step out and shoot, but in executing screens and cuts, and making the correct pass. Norman Powell matured, made less bad decisions and was able to exploit his athleticism within the offense.
With Alford's offense, and these players coalescing into a cohesive offensive unit, by the Pac-12 Tournament, UCLA had found its identity. With this personnel coming together this way, it executed its offense so precisely its Pac-12 Tournament opponents couldn't offset it. The success on the offensive end of the floor, too, spilled over to the defensive end, with UCLA playing its most consistent defense all season in the Pac-12 Tournament.
UCLA's finished the season being ranked as one of the best offensive teams in the country: 12th in points scored per game (81.2), 10th in field goal percentage (48.9%), 5th in assists per game (17.2) and third in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.68).
Anderson was the driving force. It was clear anytime he wasn't in the game the offense stagnated. He not only was exceptional at creating for others, having great vision and passing ability, he was an offensive mismatch for most teams. Opponents usually had to match up their point guard defensively against Anderson, and that meant most of the time he'd be guarded by someone 8 inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter. Anderson exploited it, being able to take smaller defenders easily off the dribble or posting them up. Among all players in college basketball this season, Anderson was the one closest to averaging a triple double, averaging 14.6 points, 8.8 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game.
Adams led the Bruins in scoring, at 17.4 points per game. He had some ups and downs throughout the season, and his body could change almost weekly. It wasn't coincidental that when he seemingly put on a few pounds he didn't play nearly as well, and curiously that seemed to happen a few times throughout the season. What's really exceptional about Adams is what a scorer he is – not just a shooter. He isn't just a catch and shoot guy, but he finds many different ways to score, many times through his own hard work on the offensive glass. He also set a UCLA season record for steals with 95. He's not a great on-ball defender, but he has quick hands and good instincts, and a unique ability to poke away balls from opponents.
Perhaps one of the biggest forces was Powell's development. Even early on this season, it was clear that he was far more comfortable in Alford's offense than he had been under Ben Howland. But interestingly, too, to Howland's credit, there were many things that you can attribute to Howland's coaching that contributed to Powell's development this season. Powell might be the only player on the team that jump stops, and there were many other fundamental elements that really contributed to his game developing. Becoming more mature and making good decisions were big factors. Powell, who had been out of control a bit in his approach, became a stabilizing force on the team, one that was an integral part of its offensive execution. He also felt so much more at liberty to take the ball to the basket, and it made for some highlight-reel-worthy plays this season. There is then Powell's contributions defensively. He is easily UCLA's best on-ball defender and many times, with a defense that wasn't superior, his ability to limit the opposing team's best scorer was a huge part of many wins.
Parker's development was of the stop-and-star variety – in one game making strides, and then in the next game reverting to a fouling machine. But overall the graph chart of his development moved up throughout the season. Besides Anderson, Parker was easily the team's best rebounder, and there were times when, late in the game, his rebounding was key. His offense, too, made advances, showing at times flashes of some good post scoring. Give Alford and his staff credit for developing Parker and his improvement.
All of this was frustrating, too, from a fan standpoint, because the flashes LaVine showed of what-could-have-been were sometimes very impressive.
It comes down to this: Whatever side of the equation you're on – whether you think it was an appropriate courtesy for the LaVines to inform the staff of their intention, or you think it was ill-timed and detrimental to Alford and the team – it's clear it had an impact on LaVine's use, effectiveness and development this season.
Bryce Alford, of course, is the lightning rod for much controversy and debate. First, it has to be said, that the younger Alford doesn't deserve much of the ridicule, since he is the player he is and just plays the amount of minutes he's put on the floor. We've maintained throughout the season that Bryce Alford has shown that he can clearly be a contributor to the program. But the argument is how much he should be used, and whether he should be utilized over other players in certain roles. It's a tough thing – to be a coach with a son on the team. It's a situation that, no matter how talented the player is, there is going to be some kind of backlash and accusations of favoritism. Really, the only way to avoid most of it is to be one of the best players in the nation like Doug McDermott, or be a clear walk-on level player. Anything in between is a potential controversy.
We do believe that Bryce Alford was played a bit too much and perhaps not in the best role suited for him this season. He averaged 23.1 minutes per game, and we think the team might have been more effective if some of those minutes had been given to Powell, the Wears, Tony Parker or LaVine. We feel that Alford isn't a point guard but a role-playing, spot-up shooting guard. He scored 31 points against Oregon, in a game where he played mostly off-the ball (and LaVine on the ball). When he's used in that role he could definitely make a contribution, but he doesn't have the feel or ability to be a point guard. If we were talking about what-could-have-been, perhaps the big what-if of the season is if LaVine had been given the role of back-up point guard and been able to develop in that role. LaVine isn't a point guard either and is prone to freshman mistakes and bad decisions, but while he can make mistakes he also had some considerable upside, and potential to bring some elements to the team with the ball in his hand that no one else on the roster could. There were times when LaVine took an opponent off the dribble and his athleticism was stunning, and it was clear he had NBA-level potential. In the Oregon game, in which LaVine actually did play some point guard with Anderson suspended, he was exceptional, scoring 18 points with 5 assists, and it was possibly what we could have seen more of all season. What if that had been cultivated rather than have it stagnate and regress? There is also the other side of the equation, however, that, since LaVine made his intention to go pro known, his game changed a bit and possibly became a little more selfish. And you can understand possibly if the coaching staff decided not to put the ball in the hands of a player with that mindset.
The decision was clearly made that Bryce Alford's role was back-up point guard, to run the team when Anderson needed a break. Bryce Alford even functioned as point guard much of the time even when he was in the game with Anderson. Even after the Oregon game, when LaVine took on the role as the lead guard and Bryce Alford as shooting guard, and it was so effective, once Anderson and Adams returned from their one-game suspension it went back to Bryce Alford playing primarily point guard.
It was also quite evident that one of the reasons UCLA needed to utilize a zone this season was to hide Bryce Alford defensively, that he just wasn't capable of playing man defense at this level. Remember: a player spends half his time on the defensive end of the floor so defense should be 50% of any player evaluation.
Again, the bottom line: The LaVine/Alford/Alford dynamic was a complicated one this season and, if you're being fair, it's easy to see both sides of the issue.
Travis Wear started off the season with appendicitis and it took a while for him to recover – and then once he returned to the court it took a while for him to get back into his optimum playing shape. It can't be discounted what an impact this had on the season. If you remember, Travis was a bit better than his brother David in 2013-2014, but the surgery set him back considerably. When Travis started to get back to his level of play, UCLA started to execute offensively quite a bit better. It might not have been until the Pac-12 Tournament, really, that Travis was really all the way back and, again, it's not coincidental that UCLA's offense took it to another level at that time. Having Travis play at his optimum was one more force that brought together the team offensively. David, too, was key in bringing that experience to the offense, and while the Wears aren't inside scoring presences, their ability to step out and shoot, which they did well at the end of the season, was a tough element for opposing teams to defend. With both Travis and David playing well it was a very strong contributing force to UCLA's excellent offensive execution. The Wears have their drawbacks – defense, rebounding, etc. -- but it was good to see them exploit their strengths and make big contributions to this year's team.
Up next: Coaching, The State of the Program and the Future…