The UCLA men’s basketball team opens the non-conference portion of its regular season schedule on Friday night when the Bruins host the Pacific Tigers (6 PM PST; Pac 12 Network).
There is a bit of guarded optimism surrounding this version of Coach Steve Alford’s Bruins because of the talent level of the squad, specifically because of the infusion of new blood into the presumed rotation. There is naturally also some skepticism as well, considering that the Bruins finished 15-17 last season and Alford’s season W/L records have progressively gotten worse. How good the talented Bruins are this year could very well lie in the coaching they receive. That will probably be the overriding question for this team this season, and the game against Pacific could possibly provide some insight to it. For instance, one of the biggest criticisms of Alford’s tenure in Westwood has been the team’s lack of consistent effort and lack of attention to detail on the defensive end of the floor. That criticism is certainly a question entering the season and Bruin fans will be watching the team beginning on Friday to see if there is a positive change.
Pacific is coming off a horrific 8-20 record for the 2015-2016 season. The final record was certainly dismaying, but it was the academic scandal the program went through that really took a toll. Enter former Arizona and NBA point guard, Damon Stoudamire as the Tigers’ head coach. If nothing else, there is already a sense of freshness around the program. Stoudamire has steadied things since his arrival, but the roster is still thin on talent, although the top six players could give some top teams, like Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and UCLA, a headache on the court.
Stoudamire wants the Tigers to eventually play at a quick pace, but he’s pragmatic enough to realize he doesn’t have that kind of line-up. He does have a backcourt with some experience and certainly some size, and he has three frontcourt players who have been solid multi-year contributors.
The Tigers played one exhibition game coming into the season and fans can glean less from that than from UCLA’s win over The Master’s. Pacific beat Bristol University 106-39 last week. This included the Tigers scoring the first 43 points of the game. Bristol is truly a cupcake; in fact, Bristol is not an NCAA school or an NAIA school. The Bears are part of the United States College Athletic Association, the USCAA (And do they know they have “USC” in their initialism?). Regardless, a solid high school team could probably beat Bristol. The information provided by that “scrimmage” amounts to next-to-nothing so we really have to try and look at last year to see the strengths and weaknesses of this team.
The Tigers were not as bad as their record last season, losing 9 games by 5 points or less, including two in overtime. They defeated BYU in Provo and pushed St. Mary’s twice. The Tigers lost their leading scorer to graduation, Alec Kobre, but they have most of the core players returning and a coach whom the players trust.
The two leading returners are senior T.J. Wallace (6’3”, 215 lbs.) and junior Ray Bowles (6’5”, 215 lbs.). Wallace is the team’s lead guard and will be the main initiator of the offense while Bowles will be probably be the scoring leader for the Tigers and the team’s best defender. Neither is particularly quick but both are strong. If the Tigers can slow down the Bruins for any length of time then they can use that strength to their advantage. Neither is a great shooter but the effort they will bring to the floor will be excellent.
Senior Tonko Vuko (6’8”, 230 lbs.) and junior Jacob Lampkin (6’9”, 235 lbs.) are probably the best of several interchangeable inside players. They are much like their counterparts in the backcourt in that they will both work tirelessly but they aren’t the most skilled scorers. Neither is an outside threat but they can both use their bodies well in rebounding and on defense. Lampkin actually looked very good against Bristol, but that could very well have been because of the quality of the opposition.
Stoudamire knows he’ll need his team to play very inspired defense in order to remain competitive. Look for the Tigers to accept only one shot on the offensive end, focusing on getting three players back on defense all the time. This would force the Bruins into half-court sets where they will likely struggle more, at least at the beginning of the season. Stoudamire will also probably look to shorten the game by working the shot clock. On the other hand, Stoudamire might recognize that this Bruin team has a penchant to play very loosely, and there is a history under Alford for his UCLA teams to descend into AAU-style play and be more apt to make mistakes trying to run. We think he’ll opt to slow down the game, but other coaches this season that have personnel more suited for it could very well allow UCLA to get up and down the floor for this reason.
UCLA has several known commodities in terms of junior center Thomas Welsh and the backcourt of Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford and Aaron Holiday. Although a bit smaller than most of their Pacific counterparts and despite the relative lack of athleticism of both Hamilton and Bryce, the skill level should easily overcome the size and strength issue.
Welsh needs to be aggressive against the Pacific front line because he can both score and get the Tiger bigs into collective foul trouble. However, a passive Welsh is often a one-step-behind Welsh and that’s when he gets into foul trouble. It will be interesting to see if Welsh is any stronger or has developed a bit more of a mean streak.
The other two players in the rotation, at least at the start of the season, are frontcourt players Gyorgy Goloman and Alex Olesinski. While neither is considered a foundational high-major player, this is the kind of game where both could gain valuable experience without costing the team. With the injury to freshman Ike Anigbogu, both Olesinski and Golomon will be counted on for minutes.
Speaking of freshmen, raise your hand if you are at least a little excited to see both Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf play. Many pundits have written about or talked quite a bit about Ball, but Leaf is deserving of some hype himself. He’s the most talented offensive power forward since some guy named O’Bannon wore number 31 for the Bruins. Ball’s skills are exceptional, and his feel for the game is equally so, being arguably the most mature basketball player on the squad, at least mentally. Together the two freshmen (with Anigbogu making it three frosh) add such an injection of talent that, in the current world of college basketball, they could help drive the Bruins to heights predicted by BRO earlier this week. Of course they are also young enough that some of the bad habits of the upperclassmen could rub off on them.
It would be nice to see the Bruins jump all over an opponent early, but that usually requires tough defense and rebounding. While the Bruins can do the latter, the jury will be out on the former until we see the Bruins do it on a consistent basis.
Pacific will probably slow down the game some, but in the end the talent difference will be too great. Expect a close game for a while that turns sloppy in the second half as the Tigers start to run more, knowing the game is lost and UCLA simply losses interest and has players begin to hunt shots.
Still, the season should start with a resounding win.