“You can probably take might out of it,” the UCLA basketball coach said.
The Bruins point guard is a near certainty to enter the 2017 NBA draft, but he might be best remembered at UCLA for what he does in the next three weeks.
Ball’s only shot at the NCAA Tournament is an odd convergence of circumstances created by the one-and-done generation.
The player UCLA will depend on the most in the postseason has never experienced March Madness. He has played just 33 collegiate games since shedding his Chino Hills High jersey.
Yet, nobody in the Bruins camp seemed concerned. Ball’s modus operandi this season was staying calm under pressure.
“I think he’s ready for whatever is going to be thrown at him because he’s built this way,” Alford said. “He’s a championship type of caliber of individual and we’re excited to have him running it for us.”
Ball had one of his worst halves of the season at Rupp Arena on Dec. 3, but hit what became his signature shot, a deep 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer, and led UCLA past Kentucky with a second-half surge against the No. 1 team in the country at the time.
His 30-foot 3-pointer with 32 seconds left in an 82-79 win over Oregon Feb. 9 might be the single biggest shot of UCLA’s season – so far.
For a pass-first point guard, the nation’s assist leader has built an impressive resume of clutch shots.
“He’s ready to orchestrate this team and do the things he’s got to do to put his teammates in the right spot and made them look good,” Alford said. “And then he’s got to know when, all of a sudden, it’s not happening, then he’s got to get a little bit more selfish and he’s got to go to the basket and he’s got to look to score.”
Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Thomas Welsh were part of the UCLA team that reached the Sweet 16 two years ago. It was the Alfords’ second consecutive trip to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
The other two members of the starting lineup have exactly zero experience in the NCAA Tournament. One of them is Ball and the other is the Bruins’ leading scorer, TJ Leaf.
It’s no coincidence that Leaf has struggled in each of UCLA’s four losses this season, most recently going 3 for 9 from the field in Friday’s loss to Arizona in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament.
On top of that, the power forward is still recovering from the sprained left ankle suffered March 1. He has played in two of UCLA’s three games since then, but showed up on Selection Sunday in a walking boot.
Leaf said he’ll be fine for the tournament, but the freshman’s mental state may be as much of a concern as his physical ailment.
Ball and Leaf can lean on extensive experience in the high school playoffs.
Ball’s Chino Hills High team absorbed everyone’s best shot as the No. 1 team in the country for the final 26 games of a 35-0 season that ended with a CIF Open Division state championship.
Leaf’s El Cajon Foothills Christian team was one of their victims, falling to Chino Hills in the quarterfinals of the CIF State tournament.
There is no comparison, however, to the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s going to be interesting for the freshmen because they’ve never experienced anything like this,” Welsh said. “But guys like me, Bryce and Isaac that have made a run in the tournament before can explain to them and help them understand that this is the time of year where it has to be the best you’ve got every game.”
UCLA’s freshmen have the ultimate opportunity to get a feel for the environment. The Bruins match up with Kent State on Friday in Sacramento is the final game of the two-day, first round.
When they aren’t occupied with team activities, they’ll simply be watching.
“You take it as a positive,” Hamilton said. “It gives us good footage of other teams and kind of gives the freshmen a feel for how March is.”
One of Ball’s go-to lines is that he doesn’t get nervous, not for basketball games, anyway.
There is no better situation to test that theory than the most intense postseason atmosphere in sports.
Next season Ball will likely join the NBA, where the playoffs consist of seven-game series.
For the next three weeks, there is no margin for error.
“He’s ready for this,” Steve Alford said. “This is what he’s driven for. He came to UCLA for this.”