PG Bryce Alford (USA Today)

Hoops Exhibitition Preview: UCLA vs. TMU

Nov. 1 -- UCLA takes on The Master's University in tonight's exhibition game and it'll be a good first look at the talent on this year's team...

The UCLA men’s basketball team begins the game portion of its 2016-2017 season on Tuesday night when the Bruins host the Mustangs of The Master’s University (7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Los Angeles). The game is clearly being played as a favor to TMU assistant coach Troy Leaf, who is the older brother of UCLA freshman, T.J. Leaf. It shouldn’t be much of a contest, but there are still some things for fans to glean as the Bruins embark on head coach Steve Alford’s fourth campaign in Westwood.

To say that Alford’s time at UCLA has been controversial would be a fairly large understatement. From his opening press conference, to the coaching of his son, to the implosion of last year’s squad during the conference portion of the schedule, Alford has placed himself squarely on the proverbial “hot seat.” There is some question as to what kind of year Alford needs to have in order to avoid being bought out of the remainder of his contract. Certainly, if UCLA were to have a stellar regular season, including a conference championship and a protected NCAA Tournament seed, a return to Westwood in 2017-2018 would be highly likely -- that is, should he choose to return. Conversely, should UCLA fall alarmingly short of any reasonable team goals, such as an NCAA at-large berth and a high conference finish, as last year’s team did, then Alford will almost probably be bought out. However, the question remains about what happens to Alford should he lead the team to a season that does indeed fall somewhere in the middle. The Bruins are not short of talent, so it stands to reason that UCLA’s success, or lack thereof, will rest largely on the coaching the team receives.

TMU shouldn’t provide much of a challenge to the Bruins. The Mustangs, who are an NAIA school, have already lost “exhibition” games to a mediocre NCAA Division II school, Azusa Pacific, and a very bad NCAA Division I school, Southern Utah. Even if the UCLA coaching staff did nothing during the game and allowed the Bruin to play unorganized pick-up basketball, the talent and size difference is so vast that UCLA should still win by roughly 40 points.

The Mustangs seem inclined to play with five guards on the floor. The only size is provided by freshman Tim Soares (6’10, 245 lbs.). He played a bunch in the loss to Azusa Pacific, but only five minutes against Southern Utah. After Soares, the tallest player in the rotation is junior guard Lawrence Russell (6’4”, 190 lbs.). The Bruins should absolutely dominate the boards. TMU does have one player in sophomore Delewis Johnson (6’3”, 210 lbs.), a thick scoring guard who has lead the Mustangs in scoring in both games, averaging almost 20 PPG in the two, and should be able to put some points on the board, but there isn’t anyone on the Mustang roster who should be in UCLA’s primary rotation. To put the talent disparity in perspective, former Bruin Noah Allen would be a stud on this Mustang team.

Without any real competition then, what should Bruins fans look for in this game? The answer will almost always come back to coaching. For instance, will the Bruins be asked to focus more on defense then any of Alford’s previous three Bruin squads? Who will be the primary point guard? If the answer to that question is freshman Lonzo Ball, then who will be the primary back-up? Will it be Bryce Alford? Or will Aaron Holiday take those minutes, allowing Bryce to focus on playing the ‘2’? How will Alford manage the frontcourt depth now that freshman Ike Anigbogu is out for at least one month? How will Alford manage the rotation knowing that he now has at least four players on his squad that generally demand shots on the offensive end? How will Alford utilize the bench in terms of minutes? Keep in mind that Alford will have Anigbogu and Prince Ali back before the conference slate begins, so he’ll have to account for those players and the minutes they’ll deserve/demand.

This will also be the first chance for many Bruin fans that didn’t stream the games in Australia to see the new talent on the roster. That includes both Ball and Leaf, who are two of the highest rated freshmen at their respective positions in the country. How much better will Aaron Holiday be now that he has a full season and one full offseason under his belt? Will Thomas Welsh be physically stronger than last season?

Pauley Pavilion is probably going to be relatively empty for this game, and may be so for the first few games of the non-conference season. Certainly many Bruin fans are skeptical of any changes in Alford’s coaching or player management and will be in a wait-and-see mode when it comes to this year’s team. If the casual college basketball fan wants to see how the Bruins are faring this season then they can simply look at Pauley’s attendance as the season moves along.

As he enters this season, Alford clearly understands that he has to win, but there are some mitigating factors. He seems to have reeled in one of the top two or three recruiting classes in 2017, and while both Steve Lavin and Ben Howland were terminated even though they had some recruiting success, the fact that Alford has that kind of class coming in can only help, especially with Dan Guerrero still occupying the athletic director’s chair.

I haven’t made season predictions before, but I am now based on the issues Alford will be facing. He is a coach and as such he wants to win, although he has clearly made a point of showcasing his son to the detriment of the program. But Alford knows that his career at UCLA is on the line this season. That doesn’t mean he’ll suddenly change dramatically and become a defensive guru or stop asking the players in practice if they know who he is, but I believe he will put players in a position to better utilize their respective talents on a regular basis. Will Bryce be showcased at times? Absolutely. Will he be tasked with taking the final shot in a one-possession game? Without question. Will the UCLA team defense improve? Arguably, it can’t get any worse than last season. There is more talent on this year’s roster (when it’s fully healthy) than last season’s, and it’s more athletic with Anigbogu essentially replacing Tony Parker. So, my prediction is that UCLA will win enough to get an NCAA bid and finish highly in the conference, but they won’t win enough to make it clear that Alford should continue to be the UCLA coach. The Bruins certainly won’t lose enough to make it a foregone conclusion that he should be fired.

It should be an interesting season, and it all starts Tuesday night…


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