A silo for (mostly) all things UCLA Basketball past, present & future
Thursday, March 16, 2017
How UCLA built its best roster since Kevin Love joined Russell Westbrook
mar 15, 2017 | clay fowler |o.c. register | ARTICLE LINK
Almost four years ago, after his third-seeded New Mexico team was upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Coach Steve Alford could be comforted only by thoughts of his son Bryce joining the Mountain West Conference champions the next season.
A couple hundred miles south of Albuquerque, N.M., UTEP was beaming about the impending arrival of Isaac Hamilton, the first five-star recruit in recent memory to sign with the program.
Meanwhile, Lonzo Ball was a spindly freshman who had just finished his first season at Chino Hills High, and much like a gangly freshman from the outskirts of San Diego named TJ Leaf, he was already a hot commodity on the recruiting circuit.
On the other end of the spectrum, Ike Anigbogu couldn’t have been much further under the radar after spending his freshman season on the Temescal Canyon High junior varsity.
Each of their paths began in drastically different places, but each led them to UCLA.
The third-seeded Bruins open the NCAA Tournament Friday night against No. 14 seed Kent State with the most talented roster since Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook were two of four future NBA players for Ben Howland in 2008. It was the last time a Bruins team reached the Final Four.
Much like that team, this UCLA roster could quickly disband, making the next three weeks all that much more important.
Senior guards Alford and Hamilton will graduate. Ball is almost certain to enter the NBA draft and could be joined by Leaf. Even Anigbogu is receiving NBA buzz, something he can augment on college basketball’s biggest stage..
Online sportsbook Bovada gives the Bruins 12-1 odds to win six consecutive games and add to the program’s nation-leading 11 NCAA basketball titles.
Think those odds are long? They seem fantastic compared to the chances of UCLA’s key players landing on the same roster.
When Steve Alford accepted UCLA’s job offer less than two weeks after signing a 10-year contract extension at New Mexico, Leaf was already having conversations as a freshman in high school with Michigan and Indiana. He would later field offers from Duke, Kansas, Louisville, Florida, Wisconsin and Oregon, to name a few.
“Those relationships with Indiana and Michigan started when he was 15,” said Brad Leaf, TJ’s father. “And UCLA, they were recruiting him when he was a freshman. We visited Michigan twice. They were very much in the picture. And my wife and I are from Indiana, have a lot of family there, so that’s very much a home base for TJ.”
After an eventful summer, Brad Leaf coached his son’s Foothills Christian High team within a game of the California State tournament TJ’s sophomore season.
The two schools that played for the right to represent California in the state finals that year were Corona Centennial and Chino Hills. Ball was a fast-emerging talent at Chino Hills who verbally committed to UCLA two months earlier, ending an uneventful recruitment that never wavered considering the location of the most storied college basketball program on the west coast an hour down the road.
Centennial, which won the matchup, was in the early stages of developing a 6-foot-7 sophomore who averaged two points and 2.5 rebounds per game his first season at the school. When he arrived at Centennial, Anigbogu didn’t nearly resemble the 6-10, 255-pound behemoth he is now.
“He was skin and bones when he got here,” Centennial basketball coach Josh Giles said. “He could barely even catch a basketball. I don’t think anybody saw him putting it together like he has. Every time he walked in the weight room his junior year, I think he gained two pounds. He’s not even 18 1/2 now, so imagine what he’s going to look like when he turns 22.”
Anigbogu and Leaf played for the same AAU team, the Compton Magic, for which UCLA assistant David Grace used to coach. Grace, currently UCLA’s recruiting coordinator, was also the primary recruiter for Ball. His success includes commitments from Ball’s younger brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo, a senior and sophomore respectively at Chino Hills.
He managed to keep UCLA on Leaf’s list while Duke, North Carolina and Indiana fell by the wayside. But it was Arizona that won a verbal commitment from Leaf shortly before his junior season.
The time Grace spent with Leaf, however, wasn’t a waste. Leaf de-committed from Arizona the summer after his junior year, realizing their style didn’t fit his preference for an up-tempo approach that would showcase the diverse range skills not often found in a 6-10 power forward.
Combined with UCLA’s fast pace, it was Grace’s approach in the living room that drew Leaf’s commitment to the Bruins three months later.
“We felt like he had no front or anything,” Brad Leaf said. “In the living room, he was just normal. It didn’t seem like there was a spiel. Same with Coach Alford. The relationship with them combined with TJ’s opportunity to play up-tempo was the difference.”
The pursuit of Anigbogu built steam as quickly as his mammoth body was filling out, eventually earning him the distinction of the 17th-ranked recruit in the country by scout.com.
Having moved from Nigeria, education was top priority for Anigbogu’s parents, Chris and Veronica. When Stanford offered, it seemingly made for an easy decision..
“I explained to him the value of a Stanford education,” Chris Anigbogu said. “And he told me about all the basketball players that had gone to UCLA. We don’t know much about basketball and the only concern I had for my children was academics. But this is a young man who has never been in trouble and we wish for him to do what he wants to do. We trust his mentors, his travel coach and his high school coach, and we listened to them too.”
Etop Udo-Ema, the founder the Compton Magic, witnessed the late rush to land one of his prized players.
“Ike developed late, so a lot of the schools didn’t get aggressive until late in the process,” Udo-Ema said. “UCLA believed in Ike the whole time and that was an advantage they had because of Grace, who knew his potential from the beginning because of the relationship he had with people in our program.”
Anigbogu committed to the Bruins on March 30, 2015.
There hasn’t been a single regret expressed by coach or player from the UCLA recruiting class that has helped transform the program from a sub-.500 team to one that has lost just four games this season opposite 29 wins.
Regarding UCLA’s recruiting pitch to him about a fast-paced offense that will allow him to display his versatility, Leaf proclaimed earlier this season the Bruins have “delivered 100 percent, in that respect.”
Ball is on every Player of the Year short list after leading the country in assists as the quarterback for the highest-scoring offense in college basketball. Now he is aiming to leave his mark on the NCAA Tournament.
“He came to UCLA for this,” Alford said. “He talked about that in recruiting. Obviously when he committed he didn’t know we were going to miss the tournament last year, but that just kind of added to the fuel. He said ‘I’m going to do everything I can to get this back where it belongs and sit among the top.’”
Ball is almost certain to depart for the NBA after this season. Leaf may have a hard time convincing himself to come back given the way his draft stock has risen.
Anigbogu may find himself in the same position, something he never imagined when he walked into Centennial High less than four years ago as a gangly sophomore who hadn’t played a varsity basketball game.
“If you saw him playing just a year ago, he was nowhere near as good as he is now,” Giles said. “Maybe when when he went to UCLA he wasn't thinking I'd be a one-and-done guy. But he knew he had a skill set that UCLA needs being big and athletic and able to protect the rim. He just knew he’d have a chance to play as a freshman because he did something that UCLA didn't have on their roster.”