LOS ANGELES — UCLA is poised to unveil the strongest recruiting class coach Steve Alford has brought to Westwood, led by Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf.
Their arrival comes just in time.
The Bruins were 15-17 last season, only the school’s fourth losing season since John Wooden arrived in 1948. Alford, who wasn’t a popular hire four years ago, returned a one-year contract extension he signed after his first season and wrote an apology letter to fans.
Now, he’s hoping Ball, Leaf and fellow freshman Ike Anigbogu are the answer to getting the Bruins back to the postseason.
Alford’s challenge lies in blending the talented trio with veterans like his son Bryce, fellow senior Isaac Hamilton and junior big man Thomas Welsh while improving the Bruins’ defense that has never been ranked higher than eighth under him.
“We messed around with doing too many different things last year,” Alford said Wednesday. “Last year for the first time in a long time with my teams, we didn’t get better month to month. That’s what was frustrating and we ended up having a bad year. Now what do you do moving forward? How do you handle that adversity?”
The Bruins return most of their roster, with the exception of Tony Parker who graduated and Jonah Bolden who left school over the summer to pursue a pro career.
The arrival of Ball brings to mind such previously hyped freshmen as Kevin Love, Kevon Looney and Shabazz Muhammad, all one-and-done players who made a mark during brief stays in Westwood.
“There’s going to be a lot of hype around you, but you got to realize that once you start college a lot of those things have nothing to do with anything,” Alford said. “It is a start over, it is a new level, just like when you get to the NBA, what you did in college means nothing.”
Ball led nearby Chino Hills High to a California state title and undefeated season as a senior who earned national player of the year honors.
“The vets are ready to win, we’re ready to win and I’m just going to do what I can to contribute to that,” he said.
Leaf, a 6-foot-9 forward from suburban San Diego, was a McDonald’s All-American who scored 3,022 points in his prep career.
At 6-10 and 250 pounds, Anigbogu lends some heft in the middle and gives the Bruins a different kind of center than Welsh, a 7-footer with a more delicate touch.
Ball’s arrival figures to have the biggest effect on the younger Alford, who averaged 16.1 points in a team-high 36.2 minutes last season. The senior guard is used to taking the last shot with the game on the line and he has handled the bulk of the ball-handling the last two years.
With Ball’s playmaking ability and passing skills, Alford can slide over to the `2′ spot.
“Now I can finally get back to what I do best off the ball and having a guy like him will really help,” Alford said. “He’s probably the best passer I’ve ever played with, along with Kyle Anderson. He’s going to bring a lot of different aspects that we haven’t had in a while.”