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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

Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim comment on death of Kobe Bryant and daughter, Gianna

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Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski was the head coach of the USA Men’s National team for nearly a decade, and in that time, he won two gold medals with Kobe Bryant.

Bryant, and his daughter Gianna, died on Sunday morning after a helicopter that they were flying in crashed in Calabasas, Cali.

“We have tragically lost one of the greatest sports figures of our time with the passing of Kobe Bryant,” Coach K said. “He was an incredibly gifted person who was universally respected. He was in constant pursuit of doing something special and there will never be a greater warrior in our sport.

“I had the amazing honor of coaching Kobe in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, and I will always remember how much he cherished representing his country in a first-class manner playing the game he so loved. The game of basketball is better today because of Kobe, and he deserves eternal appreciation for that. This is a devastating loss, made even more tragic by the passing of his daughter, Gianna, and all others on board. The entire Krzyzewski family is saddened as we genuinely loved and admired Kobe. We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife, Vanessa, their daughters Natalia, Bianka, and Capri, and the families of those involved.”

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim was an assistant on the 2008 Gold Medal winning team, dubbed the Reedem Team. That squad restored the image of USA Basketball after winning bronze medals in the 2004 Olympics and the 2006 World Championships.

“I first saw him in person when he came to the qualifier in ’07 before the Olympic year,” Boeheim told Syracuse.com. “He came in the first day and worked twice as hard as everybody else. He taught all the young players, LeBron and Carmelo and all those guys: ‘This is what you gotta do. You gotta go after this.’

“We lost in the World Championship the year before. And he just showed everybody — this is what you do. And we overpowered everybody in that tournament, then we went to the Olympics and overpowered everybody. When it was a close game against Spain in the finals, he took the ball, made the play to win the game.

“That’s who he was. He set a high standard. He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever seen. Jordan, I didn’t coach, but Jordan was the same. Of all the guys that I’ve ever coached and ever seen, he worked harder than everybody.”

Tom Izzo broke the news of Kobe Bryant’s death to Cassius Winston on live TV

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While the shock and immediacy of Kobe Bryant’s death spread through my network of friends and social media follows like wildfire on Sunday afternoon, one thing I kept thinking about was how many people involved with the game of basketball were actually playing while this was happening.

Take Michigan State and Minnesota, for example. The news of Bryant’s death broke around 2:30 p.m. ET. This game tipped off at 3 p.m. ET. Cassius Winston, Michigan State’s resident all-american, found out about Kobe’s death live on TV after the game came to an end:

 

Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu breaks down during moment of silence honoring Kobe Bryant

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Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu was moved to tears during a pregame moment of silence in honor of Kobe Bryant prior to a rivalry game against Oregon State on Sunday:

Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna died Sunday morning in a place crash that also resulted in the death of one of Gianna’s teammates and a parent.

Ionescu is the best women’s player in the country, recently surpassing Gary Payton for the Pac-12 career assist record, and she has developed a friendship with Kobe Bryant over the years. Gianna, a budding basketball star in her own right, was a huge fan of Sabrina Ionescu’s game, and Kobe Bryant had brought her and her teammates to a number of Oregon games in recent years.

These are the details of the crash, according to our Kurt Helin:

The crash took place in Calabasas, an area about 30 miles northeast of the Staples Center, where Kobe starred as a player for more than a decade. It is not far from the Mamba Academy athletic training center where Kobe was both an owner and an active participant. It was a foggy day in Southern California, which could have contributed to the crash.

The crash killed five people, of which Kobe was one.

Kobe was 41. He and his wife Vanessa have four daughters. Kobe’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna was aboard the helicopter with Kobe (they were on their way to one of her basketball games, along with a fellow teammate of Gianna’s and her parent).

 

Saturday’s Things To Know: Kentucky survives, Ayo Dosunmu’s on a tear, Roy and Huggs reach milestones

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It was actually a relatively slow day for a Saturday in late-January in college hoops, but there is still plenty to discuss. Here are the ten things that you need to know:

1. No. 15 KENTUCKY KNOCKED OFF No. 18 TEXAS TECH

Nick Richards went for 25 points, 14 boards and four blocks and Immanuel Quickley chipped in with 21 points of his own as Kentucky went into Lubbock and knocked off the Red Raiders in overtime. A full breakdown of that game can be found here.

2. TEXAS TECH IS IN REAL BUBBLE TROUBLE

I’m not sure people realize just how little their is on Texas Tech’s resume right now. They beat Louisville (11) on a neutral court. They beat Iowa State (70) at home. They beat Oklahoma State (83) at home. They won at Kansas State (89). Combined, that’s one Quad 1, two Quad 2 and a Quad 3 win. They have eight wins against sub-200 teams and have lost to seven Quad 1 opponents, including Kentucky (23) at home on Saturday. The Red Raiders will have plenty of chances to build on their profile — they get West Virginia (7) at home and play at Kansas (3) next week alone — but there is no doubt that this team has to start winning some games against teams that are not horrific.

3. AYO DOSUNMU CONTINUED HIS TEAR

In case you haven’t noticed, No. 21 Illinois is the hottest team in the Big Ten, sitting all alone in first-place in the conference standings and Ayo Dosunmu — who scored 27 points and hit the game-winner at Michigan today — has been the best player in the Big Ten this month. More on the Illini and their star here.

4. ROY WILLIAMS PASSED DEAN SMITH ON THE ALL-TIME WINS LIST

It’s ironic when you think about it: North Carolina was in the midst of their first five-game losing streak since 2003, and it just so happened to come after Williams had tied Smith on the all-time wins list. He finally broke the streak on Saturday, blowing out Miami, 94-71, to win his 880th game as a head coach. It is, quite literally, the first win for the Tar Heels in 2020.

5. BOB HUGGINS PASSED ADOLPH RUPP ON THE ALL-TIME WINS LIST

No. 14 West Virginia blew out Missouri in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge to give Huggy Bear is 876th career win, good for seventh on the all-time list, one better than Adolph Rupp, the legendary Kentucky head coach.

6. No. 1 BAYLOR UPSET UNRANKED FLORIDA

This might sound ridiculous, but if you subscribe to the theory that any underdog that wins a game is an upset happening, then No. 1 Baylor going into the O-Dome and knocking off Florida is, technically, an upset. The Gators entered the game as 2.5 point favorites, jumped out to a big league and then proceeded to watch as the nation’s best team proved that they are, in fact, the nation’s best team.

We have spent the majority of this season explaining away the reasons why there isn’t an elite team in college basketball, but I’m beginning to think that there’s a chance Baylor could be that team. They’re never going to be the darlings of the metrics and they don’t have much NBA talent, but they are so balanced, so effective in crunch time and elite on the defensive end of the floor.

7. MEMPHIS BLEW AN 11-POINT LEAD IN THE FINAL SIX MINUTES

This one was hard to do.

The Tigers were up 70-59 with less than six minutes remaining in the game and then never scored again. They would give up a 15-0 run in that stretch and go on to lose, 74-70, at home to an SMU team that is not very good. Penny Hardaway’s team has found themselves in a bad, bad spot this season.

8. ARIZONA BLEW A 22-POINT LEAD

The No. 22 Wildcats led Arizona State in Tempe by 22 points in the first half. With 1:40 left before the break, they were ahead 43-24. At halftime, they were up 43-30. With 16:30 left on the clock, the Sun Devils had cut that lead to 43-40, and after Alonzo Verge scored with 10 seconds remaining, the Sun Devils had a 66-65 lead and went on to win by that score.

The importance of this win for Bobby Hurley’s club cannot be overstated.

9. SAN FRANCISCO WORKED THEIR FOULING MAGIC AGAIN

Last weekend, San Francisco fouled a ball-handler at the end of the first half in order to get the ball back. It was a sneaky bit of math that gave the Dons an extra two points on their lead heading into the break.

On Saturday against BYU, Todd Golden drew up something similar. With 22 seconds left in the game and the Dons clinging to a 79-77 lead, he had his team intentionally foul Yoeli Childs, BYU’s star center who just so happens to be a 60 percent free throw shooter and coming off of a broken finger. The reasoning was simple: Since BYU was in the one-and-one, Childs shooting free throws meant that A) BYU’s xPPP for that possessions was 0.96, lower than the average possession for a team that had scored 77 points in 39 minutes and shot 15-for-27 from three on the night. If he made both, USF had a chance to win on the final possession. If he missed one, BYU’s best rebounder was shooting the free throws. Turns out, he missed the first, and USF hung on to win, 83-82.

10. SAMUELL WILLIAMSON MAY HAVE HAD HIS BREAKOUT GAME

Last weekend, it was freshman David Johnson that had his breakout game for No. 6 Louisville. He went for 19 points and seven boards as the Cardinals went into Cameron and beat Duke. This weekend, it was fellow freshman Williamson, who scored 14 points for the Cards as they blew out Clemson in the Yum! Center. Is this the start of his star turn?

No. 1 Baylor smothers Florida 72-61, 16th straight win

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — MaCio Teague and Devonte Bandoo scored 16 points apiece and No. 1 Baylor extended its winning steak to 16 with a 72-61 victory over Florida in the Big 12/SEC Challenge on Saturday night.

The Bears improved to 6-1 in the annual inter-conference series – the best record of any team in either conference – and themselves another week atop The Associated Press poll.

Baylor also gave the Big 12 an even split (5-5) in the daylong series.

The Bears (17-1) overcame an eight-point deficit early and led by 19 points in the second half before Florida mounted a minor rally. The Gators (12-7) had a chance to make it a single-digit game with a little more than 7 minutes to play, but they missed the front end of three consecutive one-and-ones. Kerry Blackshear Jr. misfired twice on back-to-back possessions and then Noah Locke did the same seconds later.

What could have been an eight-point game was still a comfortable lead for the Bears.

Florida eventually managed to whittle Baylor’s lead to 10 on Andrew Nembhard’s driving layup with 2:40 remaining. But the Bears answered on the other end thanks to their 13th offensive rebound, which led to two free throws for Bandoo.

Davion Mitchell finished with 11 points and six assists for Baylor, which was a slight underdog entering the game. Jared Butler chipped in 10 points.

Baylor’s length, athleticism and defensive prowess posed problems all night for Florida, which shot 44% from the field and 23.5% from 3-point range.

The Gators fell to 2-17 against the No. 1 team, including 10 consecutive losses.

Keyontae Johnson led Florida with 20 points. Nembhard added 16 points and eight assists, but he missed more shots (8) than he made (6), including all four 3-pointers. The Gators missed 13 of 17 from behind the arc.

Baylor took control of the game with a 13-2 run to close the first half, turning a tie game into a double-digit lead. The Bears hit six 3-pointers in the opening 20 minutes – twice as many as Florida – and had seven offensive rebounds.

They got help from an unlikely source. Bandoo, who averages 7.5 points off the benched, scored 11 in the opening half on 4 of 6 shooting.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: The Bears matched their best 18-game start in school history. They also started 17-1 in 2011-12 and 2016-17. They landed No. 3 seeds in the NCAA Tournament after those regular seasons and were eliminated both times by SEC teams (Kentucky in ’12, South Carolina in `17).

Florida: The Gators appeared to be taking strides while beating then-No. 4 Auburn last Saturday and nearly stunning LSU on the road earlier this week. But the team’s offensive woes returned against Baylor – no surprise given the Bears are one of the best defenses in the nation.

STILL HOBBLING

Florida forward Dontay Bassett missed his second consecutive game with a calf injury. Bassett averages 1.3 points and 2.1 rebounds.

UP NEXT

Baylor: Returns to Big 12 action and plays at Iowa State on Wednesday night. The Bears have won three of the last four in the series, but lost to the Cyclones in the conference tournament last March.

Florida: Returns to SEC play and hosts Mississippi State on Tuesday night. The Gators lost to the Bulldogs last year to end an eight-game winning streak in the series.