Exhibition Preview: Azusa Pacific

OCT. 31 -- UCLA opens the season with an exhibition Friday against Azusa Pacific that probably won't answer too many of the questions facing this year's team...

Coach Steve Alford’s UCLA men’s basketball team opens the 2014-2015 season on Friday night when the Bruins host the Azusa Pacific Cougars (7:30 PST, Pac-12 Network) in a preseason friendly (yes, I had to throw in the soccer reference).

In many ways the game truly is reminiscent of a friendly in that it was scheduled so UCLA would play a team that had the older brother of a current UCLA recruit on the roster. The outcome of the game is a foregone conclusion, with the Cougars having neither the talent nor the size to in any way bother the Bruins, but the game is important for different reasons. UCLA lost five players to graduation or early departure from last year’s Pac-12 Tournament Champion and Sweet 16 team, including four who are on the opening day rosters of NBA squads. Alford brought in a talented yet unbalanced recruiting class that should be able to fill the void of the departed Wear twins, but the real question has to do with how UCLA is going to handle the lack of depth at the guard and wing positions.

First things first: Azusa Pacific is making the transition from NAIA school to NCAA Division II institution. They had a solid season in 2013-2014, but the Cougars graduated four of their top five players, including their top three rebounders, and they weren’t a good rebounding team to begin with. It says quite a lot when the tallest person in the program is 6’8” head coach Justin Leslie. Needless to say the Bruins will have a massive size advantage. The Cougars do have one pretty solid player in senior guard Troy Leaf (6’1” 177 lbs.), who just happens to be the older brother of current 2016 UCLA recruiting target, T.J. Leaf. He will test the Bruin backcourt, specifically sophomore Bryce Alford, who struggled on the defensive end last season, and sophomore Isaac Hamilton, who will be seeing his first game action in a Bruin uniform because of NCAA rules. The Bruins are going to win this game and it really doesn’t matter what the differential is; the Bruins could win by 60 or by 30 and it won’t make a bit of difference. However, the questions to be answered will have to do with the roster and Alford plans for it.

Alford returns three solid players in senior Norman Powell, junior Tony Parker and the aforementioned Bryce. Bryce’s defensive woes have been well documented, but it could be his playing the point guard position that helps define the coming season. Bryce is not a natural point guard and really struggled trying to run the team when Kyle Anderson wasn’t in the game last season. He had a tendency to over dribble, both into the lane and to the baseline. His lane penetration often led to off-balance, ill-advised shots, while his forays into no-man’s-land on the baseline often led to opponents doubling him and turning the ball over. You would think Alford knows what he’s going to get on the defensive end from his son; the question is whether Bryce can make better decisions with the ball when initiating the Bruin offense. The answer to that question will go a long way to defining the Bruin season.

Powell is set to become the focal point of this Bruin team on many levels. He’s the only meaningful senior on the roster, is the leading returning scorer and, by the end of last year, had turned into a bit of a defensive stopper. Alford did a good job of putting Powell into more comfortable offensive situations, focusing on Powell’s slashing and athletic abilities rather than asking him to be a spot-up shooter. Now that he is the senior leader and has a year’s worth of success under his belt, Powell could be in for an all-conference-type of year. Frankly, he’ll need to have one if the Bruins are to reach the postseason, and that means he needs to be excellent at both ends of the floor.

Parker has really only played one full year, basically riding the pine during his freshman campaign. He showed flashes of dominance last year but all too often fell victim to foul trouble. Often, that trouble was a direct indictment of his being out of shape or even being a bit lazy. A key question will be whether Parker has matured enough to bring consistent effort night-in and night-out, and further, whether he can stay out of foul trouble.

There are four new players who will see their first college action on Friday night and two of them will start. Freshman Kevon Looney, one of the highest-ranked recruits in the nation last year, will presumably start at the four spot. The key to success for Looney -- and the Bruins -- will be how well he rebounds this season. Of all the skills he brings to the floor, his appetite for hitting the glass is probably the most important one going forward for this season.

The other starter will be the previously mentioned Hamilton. If Powell doesn’t lead the team in scoring then Hamilton probably will. He has a very nice offensive game, but that’s where the relative certainty ends. He has more questions surrounding his individual game than perhaps any other Bruin. He has a reputation in some circles for being a selfish player, yet he will have to see time at the point. Will be able to facilitate for others in an unselfish manner? Does he have the skill set to be a successful point guard? Will he be able to shake off the rust of last year’s “lost” season? The answers to these questions will be critical in deciding the outcome of UCLA’s season. Hamilton might actually be the most important player on the Bruins this season. His play more than any other will dictate the direction of the win-loss record. If he can actually successfully play the point, such that Bryce can play his more natural two-guard spot, then UCLA may actually be able to make a bit of noise this season.

Freshman post Thomas Welsh is going to play quite a bit. In fact, he may end up starting instead of Parker if the junior can’t stop fouling. Welsh certainly offers more on the offensive end. The big question with the seven-footer is going to be how well he can transition to college and whether he can flourish in Alford’s style of play.

Beyond Welsh, the bench offers an even foggier picture. All three of the remaining scholarship players are devoid of any real NCAA experience. Let’s assume that freshman Gyorgy Goloman won’t play much this season, which then leaves sophomore forward Wanaah Bail and sophomore wing Noah Allen. Allen at least played some minutes last season, although he did look athletically overmatched against more elite competition. Bail looked completely lost, although he appeared to give a great deal of effort and showed a flash of athleticism. These two players have to improve to the point they can provide meaningful contributions.

Alford’s strategic decision-making is a bit of a question mark entering the season. How will he carve up the minutes? What positions will everyone play? Will he employ even more zone defense than last season? Alford has said that Looney will have to play some time at the three spot. How will that work out?

UCLA ran quite a bit last season and had a strike-early half-court offense. Will Alford still focus on that? Will he be able to get the Bruins to show more attention to the defensive end of the floor than last year’s squad? Will this team collectively rebound better than last year’s team?

These questions will begin to be answered starting on Friday night, and the Bruins had better hope that the majority of the answers are positive ones.

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