Sunday, June 16, 2013

Questions ahead for UCLA hoops

Questions ahead for UCLA hoops

May, 23, 2013
MAY 23
This is supposed to be a quiet period in NCAA basketball, but that hasn't been the case for UCLA.

The Bruins have been in scramble mode almost since the day athletic director Dan Guerrero announced Steve Alford as the coach to replace Ben Howland, and the latest incident came over the weekend, when Guerrero issued a puzzling statementin response to an L.A. Times article about Alford. 

That statement is just the latest incident during hectic two-month stretch in which question after question about Alford, his past and how and why he was hired have dominated discussions about UCLA basketball. About the only way to silence all of this, of course, would be to redirect attention to the team and its potential. 

Unfortunately for Alford and UCLA, there are plenty of questions and issues surrounding those aspects of the program, too. Here, we look at five of the biggest questions surrounding the UCLA program as it transitions into the Steve Alford era: 

1. Can Alford win over the UCLA fan base?

While this certainly is the biggest issue du jour, it’s also the most easily addressed. All Alford needs to do is land a couple of top-notch recruits and then get the team winning. 

Sounds simple enough, but Alford started out behind in the recruiting race and would now need to pull off some magic in order to land a player who can impact next season’s team. 

Let’s face it: Alford was not the top choice for UCLA fans. UCLA showed interest in Shaka Smart of Virginia Commonwealth and Brad Stevens of Butler before turning to Alford and his hire came as a surprise to the Bruins faithful. 

His name had not previously come up in lists of potential candidates for the job, and some have been slow to fully accept him as a worthy leader for this proud program. 

Alford still has a shot, but the real answer to this question won’t come until next March. The only way to truly impress UCLA fans is to win in the NCAA Tournament. Conference titles and tournaments mean little. Sweet 16s, Elite Eights and Final Fours speak volumes. 

2. Does UCLA have enough depth?

Alford inherits a team with only six scholarship players returning and only one of them -- Jordan Adams -- averaged more than 11 points per game last season. 

Three freshmen are slated to arrive in late June, so the Bruins will have nine scholarship players to start next season and the good news is that is one more than they played with for much of last season. 

The Bruins managed to survive with limited numbers and won the Pac-12 regular-season title in 2012-13, but they also got pretty lucky on the injury front. A few players missed a game or two here and there, but not until Adams broke his foot in the Pac-12 tournament did a Bruin suffer a significant injury.

Sophomores Kyle Anderson and Adams and seniors Travis Wear and David Wear will bring plenty of game experience and junior Norman Powell should be ready to take a step forward in his development, but Tony Parker played sparingly last season and the other three players on the team will be true freshmen. 

There is talent there. Incoming recruits Bryce Alford and Zach LaVine were named to the Parade Magazine All-American high school team while Anderson earned second team All Pac-12 honors last season and Adams was UCLA’s second-leading scorer. Still, the lack of bodies is a concern -- a fact brought to the attention of Alford and his staff during offseason workouts. They had only five healthy scholarship players present because Adams is still recovering from his broken foot. Relying on similar injury luck as last season is a risky proposition so Alford will probably be looking to recruit a preferred walk-on or an immediately eligible transfer. 

3. Who will play the point?

Larry Drew II played a team-high 35.5 minutes per game last season mostly because he was the only true point guard the team had. He earned all-conference honors and now is gone, having exhausted his eligibility.

The success of last year’s team was in large part due to the phenomenal freshman class, but without Drew there is no way the Bruins win the Pac-12 title or even make the NCAA tournament. Now that he’s gone, the chances of repeating either of those accomplishments depend on finding a suitable replacement. 

Drew was fourth in the nation with 7.3 assists per game and also brought senior leadership from a position where experience matters most, so it won’t be easy. The leading candidates now are Anderson, a non-traditional, 6-9 point forward who played power forward most of last season, and Alford, the sharp-shooting coach’s son who has played some point guard in high school but will be a true freshman. 

Incoming freshman LaVine can also play some point in a pinch, but he’s more suited to shooting guard. The same goes for Noah Allen, another incoming freshman. Don’t be surprised if Alford starts out as the point guard with Anderson filling the same spot-duty role he played last season. 

The Bruins could also mix and match lineups based on matchups and use a big lineup with Anderson running the point or a small, four-guard lineup where Anderson plays the post. 

4. Who will play the post?

The obvious answer here is Tony Parker because he is the only true post player on the team. But Parker had a rough go of it last season and was considering transferring away from UCLA. All indications are that he will be back next season, though he has not yet made an official announcement. 

Even if he does come back, Parker didn’t exactly impress last season. He played his way out of the regular rotation with erratic performances and played his way out of favor of a coaching staff that had questions about his approach. 

The coaching change should rejuvenate Parker, who was a high school All American his senior year and was among the most coveted big men coming out of high school last year. He showed some flashes of his talent with his size and strength during his limited action with the Bruins, but most of the time looked lost and disinterested on the court. 

He racked up 54 fouls in 207 minutes (that’s one foul every 3.8 minutes) and played only 6.3 minutes per game. He will have to take a significant step forward in order to become the type of impact player the Bruins need at center. 

The other options are Travis and David Wear. The Travis Wear played the post position most of last season, but he’s more of a face-up forward and his true position is power forward. David Wear, Travis’ twin, has a similar game. 

The Bruins can get by without a true post player—they won the Pac-12 title last season doing so—but it’s a long shot to think they can make any kind of post-season run without some meaningful contributions from inside the paint. 

5. Can Steve Alford recruit California?

Although the immediate concern in an instant-gratification world is next season, Alford’s long-term success will hinge on his ability to recruit. Specifically, he needs to re-establish UCLA as a coveted destination for local talent -- something that tailed off in Ben Howland’s past few seasons. 

Howland built his successful teams around Southern California recruits such as Arron Afflalo, Josh Shipp, Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook. His last class, while outstanding, had no Southern California players and local kids seemed to be picking Arizona, Cal, Colorado, Stanford, UNLA and San Diego State over the Bruins. 

The class of 2014 is pivotal for Alford. Six of the players in the ESPN 60 for that class are from Southern California, including highly-regarded forward Stanley Johnson of Mater Dei and coveted point guard Jordan McLaughlin of Etiwanda High in Rancho Cucamonga. 

Clearly recruiting these top-tier players comes with the risk that they will be one-and-done, so Alford needs to balance the scales with some three-start type of players who are willing to grow with the program. 

There are plenty of those in California as well, so Alford will need to hit the recruiting trail hard and build quality relationships with high school and AAU coaches in the area to make sure he gets some of them to stay home.