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No. 16 UCLA Bruins: The talent is there, but can Steve Alford turn that into wins?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 16 UCLA.


Steve Alford’s tenure with the Bruins has been a weird one, to say the least.

The former Indiana Hoosier is heading into his sixth season as the head coach of the most storied college basketball program in the history of the sport. He’s been to four NCAA tournament in five years, he reached the Sweet 16 in three of those four trips to the tournament, he spent a good three or four years dominating the southern California recruiting scene and he spent one year — the season with Lonzo Ball on his roster — as the most entertaining team in the country to watch.

And yet, the UCLA fanbase has seemed perennially disgruntled. We’re two-and-a-half years removed from someone flying a plane over the UCLA campus with a banner that read “Fire Alford”. That season led to Alford giving back a contract extension, and the reasons why all of that happened are complicated.

Alford was derided for four years for playing what fans believed was “Daddy Ball”, giving his son, Bryce, free reign over his offense while his more talented teammates were asked to accept lesser roles. Then there was the whole ordeal with the Ball family, from LaVar completing overshadowing Lonzo’s memorable freshman season to LiAngelo’s arrest in China and subsequent separation from the program.

And that’s really just scratching the surface. Those three trips to the Sweet 16 gloss over the fact that just about every year Alford has had in Westwood, the Bruins have failed to live up to expectations. Even the year Lonzo was on campus, UCLA finished the regular season third in the Pac-12. That’s before you get to the simple fact that Alford has not been able to find a way to get his UCLA teams to defend, or that he’s lost his grip on LA’s fertile recruiting grounds.

Put it all together, and we are at what feels like something of a crossroads for the Alford era in UCLA.

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UCLA WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

There is no questioning the amount of talent that the Bruins have on their roster.

Alford will have four five-star recruits at his disposal this season as well as a half-dozen four-star prospects. He’s had back-to-back top six recruiting classes, according to 247 Sports, and while I’m not sure there is a lottery pick in the mix, there will be plenty of NBA scouts that will make sure that UCLA is among the teams they get a glimpse of during the regular season.

It starts with Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, UCLA’s top two returning scorers. Wilkes is a 6-foot-8 wing, a smooth scorer with a wiry build that has a chance to end up the leading scorer in the Pac-12 if things break his way. A former five-star prospect from Indiana, Wilkes has some potential as an NBA player given his height and scoring ability.

The same can be said about Hands, who is a toolsy, athletic lead guard that was forced to play second fiddle to Aaron Holiday during his first season on campus. The starting point guard role will likely be his to lose, although the early returns on freshman Tyger Campbell have been promising; there’s a steadying influence he has that UCLA desperately needs.

Prince Ali will likely see plenty of minutes as the lone veteran presence in Alford’s backcourt. A former five-star recruit from Georgia, Ali averaged 9.1 points last year after missing the 2016-17 season an offseason knee surgery. Sophomore Chris Smith — a 6-foot-9 wing — as well as freshman Jules Bernard and David Singleton will also push for minutes.

The frontcourt may actually be more intriguing, as Moses Brown, a 7-foot-1 freshman and a top 15 prospect nationally, has all the tools to be a terrific college player before heading off to the NBA. While he might think he’s better than he actually is, the talent is there for Alford to work with.

Believe it or not, while Brown may be the most talented member of UCLA’s front court, he is already the most well-known. The other freshman big is UCLA’s recruiting class is Shareef O’Neal — Shaq’s son — will miss the season after undergoing heart surgery, but UCLA has depth to spare: redshirt freshmen in Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, both of whom missed last season after shoplifting alongside Gelo Ball, are eligible this season.

There are more than enough pieces on Alford’s roster to win the Pac-12 and enter the NCAA tournament as a top four seed.

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Jaylen Hands (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

BUT UCLA IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

The Bruins have to prove they want to get stops before they come anywhere near living up to expectation.

In five seasons as the head coach at UCLA, Alford has yet to finish better than 37th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric. That came in his first season, when half of his roster were guys that Ben Howland had brought into the program. Since then, he has not finished better than 66th in defensive efficiency. The year that Lonzo Ball was on campus, the year that the Bruins were lethal offensively, UCLA finished third in the Pac-12 and got bounced out of the Sweet 16 by Kentucky in large part due to the fact that they could not — or would not — defend.

And that is a key distinction.

Alford knows how to coach defense. He played for Bobby Knight. He once finished a season as the nation’s top defense, way back in 2006 when he was the coach of Iowa. In his final two years at New Mexico, he entered the NCAA tournament as a top five seed out of the Mountain West after finishing 15th and 16th, respectively, in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric.

The problem now, as I see it, is three-fold:

  1. Alford has prioritized building a team that plays a certain way. They want to play fast. They want to fire up threes. They’ve won by playing a first-to-90 style since he arrived, and one of the risks of being an “outscore you” team is that a lack of emphasis gets put on defense. Giving up a bucket isn’t the end of the world because the reaction immediately becomes “we’ll get that back.”
  2. Compounding that issue is that Alford has recruited players that fit that philosophy and style of play, and those players aren’t always great — or even good — defensively. There are some exceptions (I’ll go to my grave saying Aaron Holiday was criminally underrated) but for the most part, Alford just doesn’t have good individual defenders on his rosters. Zach LaVine, Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Thomas Welsh, T.J. Leaf, Wilkes, Hands, Brown. The one thing they all have in common is an aversion to defense. It’s hard to be good defensively when you don’t actually have good defenders.
  3. The result is that has created a culture where a lack of defense is considered acceptable. If a coach isn’t going to hold players accountable for making mistakes defensively, where is the incentive to stop, you know, making them?

Put all of those things together, and what you get is a team that fails to reach expectations because they can’t find a way to get stops.

Kris Wilkes (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

The truth is that UCLA’s ceiling is going to be determined by whether or not the Bruins find a way to defend. No one is going to be winning regular season titles in any power conference — even a watered down Pac-12 — with a team that cannot get stops.

But UCLA couldn’t guard last year and they still managed to find a way to get to the NCAA tournament. They couldn’t guard when Lonzo was on campus, and they won 31 games. That’s because the Bruins were somewhere between very good and elite offensively those years.

They have been — and will once gain be — an “outscore you” team.

The question I have is whether or not they are going to be good enough on the offensive end of the floor to be able to make that work. Like I said, Holiday was criminally-underrated last season. He’s gone, which means that Alford will spend the next six months mediating a battle between Hands and Wilkes for the title of “UCLA’s go-to guy”.

Both are former five-star prospects. Both declared for the NBA draft this past spring. Both opted to withdraw from school when it became clear they were going to end up being second round picks at best, and now both are heading back to campus on a mission to prove to NBA scouts that they deserve to get that guaranteed contract next June.

In theory, it would be Wilkes. He’s the better scorer, he’s more polished at this point in his development and he’s proven to be more trustworthy early in his UCLA career, but Steve Alford has typically centered the way he plays around his lead guard, whether that was Bryce Alford, Lonzo or Holiday. That would lead one to believe that Hands will be the focal point next season, even if his selfishness has been something that has frustrated the Bruins in the past.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

No coach in college basketball has proven to be better at getting guys on his roster to buy into playing their role than John Calipari.

Whatever the reason, he has a knack for being able to get soon-to-be NBA superstars to accept being something other than a star at the college level. Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist famously took the fourth- and fifth-most shots on Kentucky’s 2012 national title team. Karl-Anthony Towns averaged 10.3 points and 21 minutes for Kentucky’s 2015 team that won their first 38 games. Even Demarcus Cousins averaged just 23 minutes during his one season in Lexington.

Alford’s ability to get his guys to buy into a similar concept is going to be what determines whether or not UCLA can win a Pac-12 title — as the talent on the roster might indicate — and finishing the season outside the top 25.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Four-star guard Tyrell Jones commits to Auburn

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Auburn landed its fifth verbal pledge in the Class of 2019 Tuesday evening, as four-star combo guard Tyrell Jones announced his commitment. The 6-foot-1 Jones, who currently attends West Oaks Academy in Orlando and played for the Showtime Ballers program on the adidas Uprising circuit, took his official visit to Auburn in mid-September.

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Jones is one of three four-star commits in Auburn’s 2019 class to date, with wings Allen Flanigan and Jaylin Williams being the others, and guard Isaac Okoro and forward Babatunde Akingbola round out the quintet.

During Bruce Pearl’s rebuild at Auburn the program’s had multiple perimeter players who can create off the dribble, opening things up for themselves and their teammates, and Jones fits the mold. At minimum Auburn will have to account for the loss of senior guard Bryce Brown after the upcoming season, with junior guards Jared Harper, Samir Doughty and J’Von McCormick all being upperclassmen as well.

Add in senior wing Malik Dunbar and junior Danjel Purifoy, and Auburn has six perimeter upperclassmen on the current roster. The 2019 recruiting class will go a long way towards bolstering that area of the program, with regards to both depth and talent.

Recruitment of Zion Williamson discussed during Tuesday’s FBI trial proceedings

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The trial focused on James Gatto, Merl Code Jr. and Christian Dawkins continued Tuesday, and the biggest news out of New York City focused on information that attorneys were not allowed to use in building their case. As a result, the information was discussed before jurors entered the courtroom for Tuesday’s session.

The name of Duke freshman forward Zion Williamson was mentioned for the first time, by way of the transcript of a phone conversation between Code and current Kansas assistant Kurtis Townsend that was read by defense attorney (representing Code) Mark Moore.

Per the transcript, Code and Townsend discussed the recruitment of Williamson, with Code saying that the prospect’s father was asking for “opportunities from an occupational perspective,” money and housing in exchange for his son’s commitment.

Moore would go on to read Townsend’s response per the transcript, with the coach being recorded saying that “so, I’ve got to just try to work and figure out a way. Because if that’s what it takes to get him for 10 months, we’re going to have to do it some way.”

Due to the lack of context to the conversation, this evidence cannot be used by either the prosecution or defense in the case. That being said the recorded transcript doesn’t match the testimony of T.J. Gassnola, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud in late April and is working as a federal witness as part of the plea.

Gassnola testified that neither Townsend nor Kansas head coach Bill Self knew anything of any payments being made to prospects or their families in exchange for their commitment to Kansas, one of the adidas brand’s most important college partners.

Two other names mentioned on Tuesday were those of LSU head coach Will Wade and four-star 2019 prospect Balsa Koprivica. The transcript of the conversation between Wade and Christian Dawkins, which according to Gatto attorney Casey Donnelly included the head coach saying that “I can get you what you need but it’s got to work” regarding the recruitment of Koprivica, was not admitted as evidence due to the fact that none of the defendants are being charged for any activity involving Wade, LSU or Koprivica.

The Brian Bowen recruitment was also discussed during the session prior to the jury’s arrival, with attorneys reading a transcript of a conversation between Bowen Sr. and Dawkins in which the former said that he favored Michigan State for his son. Bowen Sr. told Dawkins that Michigan State hadn’t offered anything for his son’s commitment, but that never happened since Bowen Jr. did not want to go to Michigan State. He ultimately landed at Louisville, with his pledge coming just days after an alleged payment of $100,000 was agreed upon.

This case has seemingly focused on the question of what laws/rules the trio of Gatto, Code and Dawkins have broken. The prosecution has argued that the they’ve broken federal laws (in addition to NCAA rules) as the prosecution has argued, with the defense arguing that they haven’t broken federal laws but instead ran afoul of NCAA rules on behalf of the coaches they worked with. Beyond what the jury ultimately decides, there’s also the matter of what the NCAA could do to the programs and coaches mentioned during the trial.

One day after Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said that he felt this current scandal was nothing more than a “blip” on the radar of the sport, a member of his highly-regarded freshman class was mentioned in the courtroom.

While there’s no telling where this will all end, and how the cases will impact college basketball moving forward regardless of the verdicts to come, this trial feels like more than just a blip.

Boston College and Seton Hall schedule charity exhibition for October 27

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Tuesday afternoon Boston College and Seton Hall announced that its basketball programs will play an exhibition on October 27 at Conte Forum. Volunteers will be accepting donations from those in attendance, and the proceeds will be sent to the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh to help with hurricane relief efforts.

In recent years the NCAA has allowed Division I programs to substitute an exhibition game — usually played against a Division II or III team — for a charity exhibition against another Division I school.

While Seton Hall will have a second exhibition, a home game against New Haven scheduled for November 9, this will be Boston College’s lone preseason contest before it begins regular season play on November 6 against Milwaukee.

Both teams lost some significant contributors at the end of the 2017-18 season, with Seton Hall bidding farewell to a four-member senior class that led the program to three straight NCAA tournament berths and Boston College moving on without first-round draft pick Jerome Robinson.

But there are some talented players for head coaches Kevin Willard and Jim Christian to work with as well, with guard Myles Powell back for his junior season at Seton Hall and Ky Bowman and Jordan Chatman among the returnees at Boston College.

Jury concludes hearing evidence at college basketball trial

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NEW YORK (AP) — A New York City jury is done hearing testimony at a federal trial about secret payments in college basketball.

Prosecutors have accused a former Adidas executive and two other defendants of conspiring to funnel funds to the families of prized prospects to get them to commit to programs sponsored by the sneaker company. They’ve all pleaded not guilty.

Government evidence on Tuesday focused a flurry of texts and phone calls last year about prospect Brian Bowen Jr. before he committed to Louisville, an Adidas school.

In one text, then-Louisville coach Rick Pitino expressed interest in Bowen. But there was no clear sign the legendary coach knew about an alleged scheme to give the player’s father $100,000 in violation of NCAA rules.

Closing arguments were expected to begin Wednesday afternoon.

College Basketball’s Breakout Stars

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

One of my favorite things to do heading into each season is to put together a list of the players that are primed to become breakout stars.

Sometimes, these players are painfully obvious — Hi, Carsen Edwards.

Other, these players take a year to reach their full breakout potential — Hey, Mikal Bridges — at the expense of their painfully obvious teammate — Hello, Donte DiVincenzo.

There are players that shock the world when they become an All-American (Luke Maye, Bryce Brown), some that shouldn’t have actually surprised us when they turned out to be awesome (Keita Bates-Diop) and still others where all the dots connected but the stars never quite aligned (VJ King).

Some people have strictly-defined parameters for putting together a list like this. I do not beyond the basic principle that the player will be going from playing a role to being a star, whether that means he was a starter that will become an all-american or a bit-player slated to be a key cog on a potential Final Four team matters not.

Anyway, here is the list.

Feel free to drop me a note here (or on twitter) yelling at me over who I missed.



ERIC PASCHALL, Villanova

Paschall is hardly an unknown name at this point in his career. A fifth-year senior that was a double-figure scorer for Villanova’s national title team a season ago, Paschall popped off for 24 points on 10-for-11 shooting in the win over Kansas in last year’s national semifinal, and if it wasn’t for Donte DiVincenzo turning himself into a lottery pick with a 31-point explosion off the bench in the title game, he would have been one of the great out-of-nowhere stories in recent Final Four history.

Except he’s not really out of nowhere. Paschall averaged 15.9 points as a freshman at Fordham before heading to Villanova where, during their run to the 2016 national title, he lost more than 20 pounds, streamlining his body and fine-tuning his athleticism and jumper to the point where he is an ideal fit as a role player in the modern NBA. For me, he’s a top 20 pick, and I think that will come out this year. It’s important to remember two things here: Paschall is a terrific defender with the athleticism to guard down and the size to guard up, and while he shot just 35.6 percent from three last season, he made 35 of his final 76 threes (46.1 percent) after starting his junior season 1-for-25.

I think he turns into an all-american for the Wildcats this year, following in the footsteps of Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges before him. Buy stock now.

DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia

I am the conductor of the De’Andre Hunter hype train. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and the versatility to defend multiple positions while possessing the discipline that is inherent in playing under Tony Bennett for three years, my money is on Hunter becoming an all-american this year.

I’ve said this before, but I think the reason that UMBC was able to upset Virginia last season was due to the fact that Hunter was not there. Without Hunter, the Wahoos could not defend a team that played with four guards. There was more to it than that — UMBC played out of their minds, UVA choked — but what let it get to the point where UVA was in a position to choke was that they couldn’t get stops. Hunter is the piece that will allow them to play that way, and oh-by-the-way, he will be their best one-on-one scorer this season.

The question now becomes whether or not UVA has the guards to let him play the four, but that’s a different conversation for a different day.

De’Andre Hunter (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

PJ WASHINGTON, Kentucky

This Kentucky team is one that is hard to figure, as they run just about two-deep at every spot on the floor without a clear delineation between who is the best at a given position and who should be coming off the bench.

That’s certainly true up front, where Reid Travis, Nick Richards and Washington are all putting together preseasons that, in a vacuum, should earn them a starting spot, but for my money I think that Washington ends up being the best of that group, and probably the best player on this Kentucky team.

CHRIS LYKES, Miami

Jim Larrañaga’s best teams have come when he has a clearly defined star at the point guard spot. It happened with Shane Larkin in 2013, when they won the ACC, and it happened with Angel Rodriguez in 2016, when they finished second in the ACC. I think it will happen again this season, as 5-foot-7 dynamo Chris Lykes looked primed to takeover a backcourt that had all the talent and even more question marks last season.

The big issue that Miami dealt with was that they just didn’t have the shooters to be able to create spacing. Lonnie Walker was inconsistent while Bruce Brown and JaQuan Newton weren’t shooters. They struggled with who was supposed to play what role and where they were going to get shots. It was only after Brown went down for the year with a wrist injury that Lykes stepped up. He scored in double-figures in nine of the final 12 games, including 19 points against UVA and 18 points and four assists in a win at North Carolina.

The backcourt will be his this season, and around him will be a trio of guys that can shoot the cover off of the ball with a monster in the middle in Dewan Hernandez. I’m not sure if this team will be able to stop anyone, but they are going to be an efficient team scoring the ball.

JORDAN POOLE, Michigan

Someone is going to have to score some points for Michigan this season as the Wolverines lost their three-best offensive weapons — Mo Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson. Poole seems as likely as anyone to takeover that go-to guy role. He certainly likes to shoot, as he managed to average 6.0 points in just over 12 minutes with the highest shot rate of anyone returning this offseason.

I’m not sure if he’ll be Michigan’s leading scorer — my money is still on Charles Matthews for that role — but John Beilein has proven that he has the ability to make skilled offensive players effective at the Big Ten level, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Poole is the next in that line.

MITCH BALLOCK, Creighton

There are going to be a lot of shots opening up for Creighton this year, as Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas are both off to the NBA, and I fully expect Ballock to soak up plenty of those opportunities. A 6-foot-5 guard from Kansas that picked the Bluejays over the Jayhawks, Ballock showed flashes during his freshman season of being the next Creighton star. He finished the year averaging just 7.3 points while shooting 32.6 percent from three, but those numbers will be heading up this year. Another former four-star recruit, Ty-Shon Alexander, is eligible for this list as well.

Chris Lykes (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

HERB JONES, Alabama

Jones might end up being one of the guys that we end up being a year too early on. A 6-foot-6 lead guard with terrific measureables and defensive instincts, he’s going to be asked to play a much bigger role this season as the Crimson Tide look to replace the production they lose with Collin Sexton turning pro. He may be a better fit at the NBA level than in college.

MJ WALKER, Florida State

Walker is a former five-star prospect and McDonald’s All-American that spent last season playing off the bench for the Seminoles. With Braian Angola off to the professional ranks, Walker is going to be one of the guys tasked with taking over his role offensively. He’s a talented scorer with big-time athleticism — he was a high major recruit as a wide receiver — that will play an important role for a team that looks like they could finished fourth in the ACC.

CANE BROOME, Cincinnati

Cincinnati lost three of their best players off of last year’s team, and that is not going to be easy to replace. But someone is going to have to. Jarron Cumberland is the guy that’s going to end up being Cincinnati’s leading scorer, and there is some talk that he could end up being an all-american-caliber player, but I think the guy more deserving to be on this list is Broome.

A former Sacred Heart Pioneer, Broome averaged 23 points before transferring to Cincinnati. After redshirting the 2016-17 season, Broome played as more of a distributor last season, but that’s not what he’s best at. He’s a bucket-getter, and with the lack of scoring pop on this roster along with the fact that senior point guard Justin Jenifer is still around, I think Broome ends up averaging north of 15 points this season.

NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech

Alexander-Walker had some one-and-done buzz heading into last season, but the cousin of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had a bit of an up-and-down freshman season. He ended up averaging 10.5 points, but he did not shoot the ball as well as he needed and he was less of a playmaker than many expected him to be. Still, he’s a talented player on a Virginia Tech team that is going to need their sophomore class to take a step forward if they want to live up to their hype this season.

MYLES CALE, Seton Hall

Cale is a guy that I loved in the high school ranks. At 6-foot-5, he has the kind of size and athleticism that should let him be a perfect wing in the Big East. With everything that Seton Hall lost this offseason — Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez, Ishmael Sanogo — they are going to need someone to pick up the slack, and there’s only so much more than Myles Powell can do.

BRANDON RANDOLPH, Arizona

The big issue that Arizona faces this season is that the FBI investigation into college basketball torpedoed their recruiting. They were not able to go out and replace Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins with pieces that will be able to impact the program immediately, so they are going to have to promote from within. Randolph was a four-star prospect in high school that played on the same high school team as Mo Bamba. Is this the year the shackles come off and he can show what he can do?

NOJEL EASTERN, Purdue

Eastern at this point is probably best-known for being the guy that declared for the draft after averaging 2.9 points as a freshman. But he’s also a 6-foot-6 guard that will see a ton of minutes next to Carsen Edwards as the Boilermakers try to replace four starters off of last season’s roster.