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UCLA basketball 2017-2018: The kids will be alright

UCLA basketball returns this Friday in Shanghai. Can Steve Alford’s talented but inexperienced baby Bruins grow into a Pac-12 contender?

NCAA Basketball: Pac-12 Media Day
Can Steve Alford prove last year wasn’t just a Lonzo Ball-led revival?
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

I could recap the Utah game, but dead bodies gross me out.

My deepest apologies to our Ute brethren in the Beehive State who hoped to read about their big time win. But Jim Mora era UCLA football is dying a slow death, and the decision is either to pay $12 million to cremate the body now or wait until next season when it is cheaper but the stench is overwhelming.

So the timely return of the UCLA men’s basketball team to the hardwood against Georgia Tech this Friday in Shanghai smells like roses. Steve Alford looks to prove last year’s 31-win team was not just a Lonzo Ball-led phenomenon, while Larry Scott and Lavar Ball look to take their empires global.

What Alford’s Bruins have in potential, they lack in experience. Gone are Ball, TJ Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton, and in come a cadre of six talented freshmen, led by Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands. Of the six, four are 6’8 or taller and two - Wilkes and Chris Smith - can handle the ball on the wing. This team will be long at all 5 positions - Aaron Holiday and Jaylen Hands are both lanky and 6’3, and Prince Ali (remember him?) will come off the bench and cause problems with his Go-Go Gadget arms. LiAngelo Ball is 6’5 and will be the 4th guard and will be a big body on the perimeter.

But in his time in Westwood, Steve Alford has yet to coach a consistently good defensive outfit. Last year’s team vacillated wildly between stellar and horrendous (depending largely on how ruthlessly teams attacked Bryce Alford), and Ben Howland was the last UCLA coach who bothered trying to defend the corner three. And with a team that looks to lack the shooting of last year’s team, UCLA’s defense will have to be solid while the offense sorts itself out.

So with that and all the questions I have about this season, here are a few that spring immediately to mind.

Who points the way forward?

UCLA’s offense will be entirely rebuilt this season. Thomas Welsh will step up as the new focal point, and his newly extended three-point range adds an awesome new wrinkle to his game. Expect a lot of perimeter pick and pops between him and the point guard.

But who plays point guard to run them? UCLA has two more than capable guards in Aaron Holiday and Jaylen Hands, but who gets the first call? The question gets tricky to answer when you compare their skills sets.

Hands is pass-first, and Holiday is score-first. Therefore, it makes sense to let Hands run the show and let Holiday play similarly to last year, where he was a offensive force off the bench. But Hands has never run a college offense yet, and he struggled early against a full-court press in the team’s exhibition against Cal State LA. Better teams will play better defense, so how much rope will Alford give to a freshman to figure it out?

Against Cal State LA, Holiday ran the point and Hands played off to start. I imagine both will get run during games, and it will be on a feel basis. But it is worth monitoring as UCLA rebuilds its offense on the fly.

How does the frontcourt rotate?

Against Cal State LA, GG Goloman got the start at power forward next to Welsh, presumably for his experience and his height. I imagine he will be the starter for the foreseeable future, and it’s cool to see him grow into a solid contributor.

But who backs him up? Presumably, it would be Cody Riley, the 6’10 freshman from Sierra Canyon. He is big at 260 pounds and can bang down low alongside Welsh on defense and take up the interior on offense. I imagine he would also slide in to spell Welsh at center, too.

But then who else? Will Alex Olesinski and Ikenna Okwarabizie get time after being non-contributors for two years? And what about Jalen Hill, the 6’9 forward who sat out the exhibition?

There are so many questions to answer with so many new faces. It will be fascinating to see how things shake out in Shanghai.

Can this team play defense?

On paper, this looks to be Steve Alford’s best defensive roster in his tenure.

Holiday is a stellar defender and will draw the opposing team’s top guard. Hands and Kris Wilkes have helicopter arms, and the upgrade in length and lateral quickness from Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton should make for much better perimeter defense. Prince Ali is back healthy, and as the team’s quickest lateral defender, he can be a spark plug off the bench as well.

On the interior, Welsh and Goloman are not the fleetest of foot, so they could struggle against quicker bigs. Chris Smith is 6’9 on the wing and could guard smaller fours, as could Wilkes, but we will not know until they play just how good this team can be.

The point being, there is no reason why this team cannot be good defensively. The players this season are far more athletic across the board than last year, but it is on Alford to prove that he can create a workable defensive scheme.

And in his tenure so far, the results are spotty at best.

Who’s the team leader?

On a less tactical note, the most fascinating part of this season will be to watch who develops as this team’s leader.

Last year, Lonzo Ball did it all, both on and off the court. He reset an entire program’s culture and sparked a revival nearly on his own (though it must be said, TJ Leaf was a wise old head on the court as an 18 year old freshman, too). Even with two seniors in the lineup next to him, it was the Lonzo show, and with good reason.

Who steps up? Welsh and Holiday look like the likely choices, especially given the youth around them. Will they be the ones to steady the ship when things go wrong? Does Jaylen Hands have it in him to take over games from the point at such a young age? And what about Wilkes, a five-star recruit in his own right?

This team is super young, and they will get socked in the mouth at some point. The growing pains are inevitable. But grow they must, and it will be up to someone to lead that charge. Luckily, there are a plethora of viable candidates from whom to choose.

Final Thoughts

This is the most in the dark I have gone into a UCLA basketball season in quite some time. The turnover from last year to this is so stark that it will take a few games to adjust. How often do teams go from 15-17 one season to 31-5 the next? That 16 win improvement was sparked by a generational talent and pieces that fit perfectly around him.

This season, UCLA has all the pieces in place to grow into a Pac-12 contender, especially with the uncertainty clouding the other favorites across town and in Tucson. It feels odd to think that UCLA is being a bit overlooked when it brought two elite recruits in, but when a supernova talent like Lonzo Ball leaves, it is easy to forget that the whole team did not leave with him.

What is left behind is a young team dripping with potential. They can be an elite defensive unit with arms that stretch across the whole floor and a center that bombs threes and two point guards that can light up on offense.

But the kids need to grow up fast to keep up in the Pac-12. The learning curve waits for no one, and at a program like UCLA, where winning is expected, the hairpin turns are coming awfully fast.

The starting flag drops against Georgia Tech on Friday. We’ll see how they drive to start.

UPDATE: it’s not off to a great start! Three freshmen - LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill - were arrested for shoplifting in Hangzhou.

ESPN’s Jeff Goodman has an update here.

More details will soon emerge, and one has to believe none of the three will play on Friday. After that, who knows.