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Looking ahead: UCLA Bruins

5/24/2015

It’s never too early to look ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage. Today: the UCLA Bruins.

Whether UCLA deserved to make the NCAA tournament is debatable. Whether they deserved to advance past SMU on a controversial goaltending call is too. But what can’t be questioned from the past season is how much Steve Alford’s young team grew and improved during the season.

The Bruins were all but done midway through the season, when they lost five straight games, including an embarrassing 83-44 loss to Kentucky and an equally deflating 71-39 loss to Utah. They bounced back and advanced to the Sweet 16 with a rotation full of sophomores and freshmen, and that experience should bode well for this season.

They’ll start the journey without forward Kevon Looney, who joined Shabazz Muhammad (2013) and Zach Levine (2014) as the third UCLA freshman in the past three years to leave after one season on campus. Like Muhammad and Levine, Looney is a likely first-round pick in the NBA draft.

Norman Powell, the only senior in the rotation the past season, will be missed. He led the team in scoring and was the lone veteran younger players could lean on. That’s what made Powell so valuable to the Bruins, and there is no obvious replacement for him, in terms of leadership and toughness. UCLA will have to find someone to fill that role.

Three starters — Bryce Alford, Tony Parker and Isaac Hamilton — will form the Bruins’ nucleus. The potential challenge for Steve Alford is quality depth. The previous season, four players logged more than 30 minutes per game, and Alford could be forced to play a similar rotation next season.

What the immediate future looks like: UCLA overloaded on backcourt talent. Bryce Alford and Hamilton can compensate for the scoring void left by Powell and Looney. Alford is the team’s leading returning scorer, with 15.4 points per game, and he led the team in 3-pointers. Hamilton, who averaged 10.6 points per game, was second in made 3-pointers.

Freshman Prince Ali, ranked No. 41 in the Class of 2015 by ESPN RecruitingNation, initially committed to Connecticut at the start of his junior year in high school, but he reopened his recruiting process before playing the summer circuit. Ali can play either position in the backcourt, if necessary, and has the athleticism to become UCLA's best rebounding guard.

The addition of Aaron Holiday could give Bruins fans a sense of deja Jrue. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) If there’s a familiar look to the 6-foot point guard, it’s because he is the brother of former UCLA standout Jrue Holiday, who’s currently with the New Orleans Pelicans. Aaron Holiday will give Alford much needed relief, as the junior averaged 36.3 minutes per game the past season.

The delayed debut of Jonah Bolden, a 6-foot-9 forward from Australia, will be a welcomed sight. The NCAA declared him a partial qualifier last season and ruled him ineligible. The issues were rooted in his move from Australia to prep schools in Las Vegas and New Hampshire. Bolden wasn’t cleared to practice with the team until January, but the Bruins are high on his potential and his ability to be a stretch-4 in their lineup.

Bolden will join a frontcourt that, besides Parker, will rely heavily on unproven players. Parker started 33 games and averaged 11.5 points. He is also the leading rebounder, at 6.7 per game. The Bruins will need him to stay out of foul trouble more than ever in 2015-16, given that he committed a team-high 118 personal fouls the past season.

Seven-foot center Thomas Welsh and 6-foot-10 Hungarian forward Gyorgy Goloman, both sophomores, did gain valuable experience as reserves the past season. Welsh, who played an average of 15.7 minutes and appeared in every game, could move into the starting lineup, where he brings a shot-blocking presence. Welsh and Goloman, a 6-foot-10 forward, will have to become better rebounders after Looney’s departure. Freshman forward Alex Olesinski will add another scorer to the lineup, but he will have to get stronger to make an impact.