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Tuesday, October 18, 2016
OCR's Miller: Thanks in part to addition of Lonzo Ball, UCLA basketball gaining attention far and wide
oct 5, 2016 | jeff miller | o.c. register| ARTICLE LINK
LOS ANGELES – They were on the other side of the equator, on the opposite end of the globe, an 18-hour time difference away.
UCLA’s basketball players were living a day ahead of everyone back home and still, despite the sort of distance that can be disorienting, the focus of the fans was sharp enough to suggest the team had never left Pauley Pavilion.
After all three games the Bruins played in August during a trip to Australia, a couple dozen people lingered to get an autograph from or a picture with Lonzo Ball.
Imagine what the reception will be like after the kid actually does something at UCLA, like make his college debut.
“We all were surprised,” Coach Steve Alford said Tuesday. “You knew he had a very special high school career. But you didn’t think people in Australia were paying attention.”
Crazy? This is the kind of insane hype suddenly surrounding a team that last season was so disappointing Alford gave his bosses their money back.
These are, indeed, promising times for the Bruins, who, if everything breaks just right this winter, could produce one of the greatest examples of rebounding in the history of a program celebrated for its greatness.
Led mostly by Ball but also by fellow freshmen TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu, UCLA has regained all the momentum – and then some – it lost last season during a 6-12 Pac-12 showing that included three losses to USC by an average of nearly 20 points.
Rather than fall to their rivals in such a fashion – and in basketball, no less – Bruins fans likely would be more comfortable trying to slow dance with Traveler, who, if you’re not aware, is USC’s mascot and a horse.
Ball, Leaf and Anigbogu join returning starters Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford, Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday to give UCLA a depth and talent level the program lacked in 2015-16.
“I really like the culture of this group,” Alford said. “I think this is a team that truly wants to be good. If we can stay healthy, I think this will be a team that progressively just gets better because of the desire of the players.”
Of course, this is still the preseason, the Bruins more than five weeks away from their opening game.
Also, a year ago, UCLA beat Kentucky and Gonzaga before everything went to pieces, the largest chunks of which landed on Alford like toppling trees.
Entering his fourth season, Alford has been the subject of internet verbal bashing that would probably seem excessive to someone who didn’t play for Bobby Knight.
The tone, however, should change if Ball becomes the kind of Bruin so many expect him to be, which is to say a short-term one.
The 6-foot-6 guard projects to be a one-and-done college player after averaging a triple-double last season for undefeated and state champion Chino Hills.
“What makes Lonzo special is that he can beat you by scoring,” Alford said. “He can beat you by assisting. He can beat you by rebounding. He can beat you by being disruptive defensively.”
And, in basketball, that about covers it, unless someone figures out a way to win games strictly by setting screens, which, presumably, Ball does well, too.
Such expectations clinging to a young player – Ball turns 19 this month – could be a significant burden, especially if no one around here understood his situation.
Fortunately, Alford has been there, even if he did that during a time so long ago to today’s players that he might as well have played in black-and-white, when the ball and not just the Chuck Taylors had laces.
After arriving at Indiana in 1983 as something of a folk hero in short shorts, Alford received a message on the opening day of practice, one Knight delivered by first getting his attention with a whack to the back of the head.
This message wasn’t a text; it was a test. At the time, the legendary coach was wearing a championship ring as bulky as it was unforgiving, Knight’s tough love showing itself in the form of a flagrant foul.
He then acknowledged that Alford was the reigning Mr. Basketball in the state and pointed out that no one on the Hoosiers’ team or schedule particularly cared.
“It made me understand that no matter what you’ve done, once you get to college, you hit the reset button,” Alford said. “That’s the kind of stuff I’m trying to help ’Zo with. The eras have changed, but the expectations are the same.”
The expectations at UCLA are such that, following his team’s 15-17 overall finish last season, Alford authored a letter of apology to Bruins fans and returned a one-year contract extension he had received in 2014.
Even to the UCLA followers who continue to doubt this coach, there’s no denying that he has paid for his failings, Alford’s accountability as genuine as legal U.S. tender.
“Hopefully, people understand how much I care about UCLA and about making this work because I gave back millions,” Alford said. “It’s not like I gave back a couple thousand dollars. The message was, hopefully, ‘I’m not happy, either.’”
The mood, however, could be changing, the Bruins more than eager to turn a program that ventured Down Under right side up again.