Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Salt Lake Tribune: Led by Lonzo Ball, No. 4 UCLA presents enormous challenge for Utes

jan 13, 2017 | kyle goon |The Salt Lake Tribune | ARTICLE LINK

Utah basketball » Freshman guard leads No. 4 UCLA’s resurgence.

In the eyes of Casey Jacobsen, UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball already has achieved the vastly unlikely: He's made watching Bryce Alford palatable.
Jacobsen, an analyst for both Fox Sports and Pac-12 Networks, has fumed over the years watching Alford, a career 40.7 percent shooter with a frustratingly streaky stroke. But Alford is shooting 50 percent overall and 47 percent from 3-point range as a senior. Those are two things he's never come close to doing before, and an evolution that Jacobsen credits to Alford sharing the floor with Ball.
"It's not just that Bryce worked more, that's the 'Lonzo factor,'" Jacobsen said. "It's rare to find a superstar that's genuinely unselfish. He doesn't really care if he scores 2 or 20, but he makes everyone around him better."
Ball, a 6-foot-6 point guard, is an outstanding talent who has been the driving force behind the Bruins' 17-1 start and No. 4 national ranking. He's averaging eight assists per game, and his laser-like passes and contagious unselfishness have unleashed UCLA offensively, making the program one of the top shooting (53.5 percent, No. 2) and scoring (93.4 ppg, No. 3) teams in the country.
"They're one of the best teams in the country, and they've got a lot of horsepower," Utah junior Kyle Kuzma said. "We gotta be ready to guard them."
So far, few have.
The fewest points UCLA has scored this season is 74 in a win over Texas A&M. Oregon State held the Bruins to 76 points. But UCLA also has scored 100 or more six times, including Thursday night in a drubbing of Colorado in which UCLA hit 19 shots from 3-point range.
Like Utah (12-4, 3-1), the Bruins have six players averaging 10 or more points per game. There's Alford, who is leading the team with 17.9 ppg and is a deadly 3-point threat — he hit nine against Colorado. Freshman T.J. Leaf, a 6-10 forward who also was a SoCal prep star, nearly is averaging a double-double and boasts the sixth-best shooting percentage in the country (65.1). Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday bring scoring prowess out of the backcourt, while Thomas Welsh has surprising range for a 7-foot center.
At the center of it is Ball, who passes to a fault but also is capable of getting to the rim, firing from deep (43 percent on 3-pointers) and is a plucky defender (1.7 steals per game) and rebounder (5.4 rpg).
Utah sophomore guard Sedrick Barefield has played against Ball a handful of times in both AAU and high school. He even dropped 21 in Corona Centennial's win over Ball's Chino Hills squad in 2014. But Barefield acknowledged it's tough to know what to expect when Ball rolls at you with the ball in his hands.
"You just have to be ready," Barefield said. "It's a tough matchup for us. You have to be on your toes and ready to go."
Ball's ascension to the top of college basketball has been some time in the making.
Compton Magic AAU coach Etop Udo-Ema went to Ball's first high school practice in 2012 in the company of David Grace, then an assistant at Oregon State. The ninth-grader had a scholarship offer from the Beavers by the end of the session.
"He was just ridiculous: His poise was like a senior, like he had been playing in high school forever," Udo-Ema said. "He's so heady. He's got such a high IQ. He can see everything developing on the court before it happens. And not many guys have that."
Grace moved on to Alford's staff at UCLA and still got his man. He also added Leaf and fellow freshman big man and rim-protector Ike Anigbogu (both Compton Magic alums) to round out one of the most decorated incoming recruiting classes in the country. The newcomers have changed the outlook for a program that was 15-17 last year.
When Ball was coming up at Chino Hills, some questioned how his style would work at the next level. Could he really play that fast? Could he really score and pass the same way he did in high school? So far, Ball has erased doubts while climbing to the No. 2 spot on Draft Express' NBA prospect board.
"I had that doubt — for maybe 10 minutes," said Jacobsen, who called Ball's games in the California state tournaments for the past three years. "I don't see how NBA GMs pass up a player who will elevate every single player around him."
How do you beat a team that seemingly can score points at will? It's hard to say.
Udo-Ema was in Eugene the day Oregon rallied at home to deal the Bruins their only loss so far, and the Ducks needed two "circus shots" in the final minute to pull out the 89-87 stunner. While most acknowledge that UCLA is a pedestrian defensive team (10th in Pac-12 in scoring defense, seventh in shooting percentage defense), that hasn't mattered most of the time.
Utah, fresh off a 22-point victory against No. 25 USC and hunting for the program's first-ever wins over ranked opponents in consecutive games, is ready to start hunting for flaws in the armor.
Not that it will be easy.
"That's a team that was talented last year, and all of a sudden they add Leaf and Ball," coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "Ain't too many times that we play a top-5 team."
Twitter: @kylegoon

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