New worries raise new questions for UCLA basketball this season

Ben Bolch, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Basketball

"I also know the history and I know the tradition here, but truth be told too, you're talking about from '75 to current, there's been one national title. So I know that history too. It's just we know what our expectations are and we're going to play as hard as we can and do as well as we can."

The Bruins are coming off a 31-win season that was exhilarating and something of a disappointment. UCLA featured one of the most entertaining offenses in the nation -- a college version of the Golden State Warriors -- while rolling out a defense that more closely resembled that of the long-suffering Washington Generals.

The team lost its entire freshman class in the spring: Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu all off to the NBA draft. Sharpshooting guards Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton also departed after exhausting their eligibility, leaving the Bruins with only one returning starter in senior center Thomas Welsh.

"I think our offensive style," Welsh said after the Bruins scored 111 points last week during an exhibition rout of Cal State Los Angeles, "is pretty much the same."

Not entirely. The 7-foot Welsh has added three-pointers to an arsenal that already included one of the most automatic baseline jumpers in the game.

UCLA hopes to preserve the offense that reinvigorated a fan base, helping the Bruins sell out nine home games last season while averaging more fans than at any point since winning their last national championship in 1995.

Interest remains strong in a team that also returns junior point guard Aaron Holiday and senior power forward Gyorgy Goloman while adding McDonald's All-Americans Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes. A school official said season ticket holders renewed at a 94 percent rate while the fan base added 800 new season ticket holders.

UCLA has also retained its most opinionated fan in LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo. The eldest Ball said he liked what he saw from the Bruins during their exhibition.

"They finally picked up my style of play, that fast pace," LaVar Ball said. "They ain't running no plays, they're just throwing the ball to athletes in front of them."

The primary pace pushers will be Hands and Holiday, who will often play together in the backcourt. Hands soared over his coach during a dunk competition last month at Venice Beach and will contribute to an influx of length and athleticism that should make the Bruins much stronger defensively, provided their ranks aren't thinned by the legal imbroglio.

The schedule could become a slog even before Pac-12 Conference play. In addition to their China trip, the Bruins will travel to Kansas City, Mo., to play in a two-game tournament; Ann Arbor, Mich., to face Michigan; and New Orleans to play Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic.

Ultimately, some won't consider UCLA's season a success unless it makes a final stop in San Antonio for the Final Four. Alford hasn't participated in college basketball's biggest showcase since playing for the Hoosiers and the Bruins haven't been there since enjoying the last of three consecutive trips to the Final Four under coach Ben Howland in 2008.

In 22 seasons as a coach at the Division I level, Alford has never made it past the round that some have attached to his name. Going at least one step further this season, with a fully intact roster, would be especially sweet.

(c)2017 Los Angeles Times

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