Following last season's 15-17 record, including a 6-12 mark in the Pac-12, the Bruins have retooled. They are 14-1, with the lone smudge on the record the 89-87 last second loss to conference favorite and 15th-ranked Oregon in Eugene last Wednesday. Other than that, UCLA, which dropped two notches from second to fourth in the AP poll, are unbeaten, including a most impressive 97-92 victory over top-ranked Kentucky on the Wildcats home floor.
They play a frenetic, fast-paced style and are second in the country in scoring at 93.9 points per game. The fast start has quieted the critics for now, but Steve Alford, in his fourth season at Westwood, had better to get to work on winning those ten national championships, the only achievement that UCLA followers, spoiled by John Wooden, will accept.
Much like 17th ranked Arizona, which beat the Bears (10-4, 1-1 Pac-12) last Friday in Berkeley, the Bruins (1-1 Pac-12) are leaning on talented newcomers to make up for missing players. Neither guard Prince Ali nor forward Alex Olesinski, both counted on to be major contributors, have played at all because of offseason injuries. UCLA is rolling without them.
In a conference full of great freshmen, UCLA has two of the best in guard Lonzo Ball and forward T. J. Leaf. Ball, who hails from nearby Chino Hills, was last year's Naismith Player of the Year and generally considered the top national recruit in the entire class. He is living up to expectations, the only player in the country averaging more than ten points (14.3), eight assists (8.1) and five rebounds (5.7) per game.
"He does a little bit of everything for them," said Cal guard Sam Singer this week. "He is very talented and is shooting a great percentage (52.5 from the floor)."
Leaf, is also a Southern California product, coming from El Cajon. He leads the Bruins in scoring (17.5 ppg) and rebounding (8.9). Cal center Kingsley Okoroh will be one of the Bears assigned to help stop the 6-9 youngster.
"I haven't seen that much of him, but he is shooting a good percentage (65.7) so whenever he gets the ball he is most likely scoring," Okoroh said this week. "Whoever is defending him, Ivan (Rabb) or myself, is going to have to play him straight up and not foul him. We are going to have to box him out because he is good on the offensive board, too."
Leaf has considerable help on the front line, with seven-foot junior Thomas Welsh and active presence underneath. The slender 245-pounder, leads UCLA with 9.2 rebounds per game also has a nice touch on his mid-range jump hook. Cal will always have to know where he is when the Bruins are on offense.
Bryce Alford, the coach's son relieved of his point guard responsibilities with Ball's arrival, is enjoying a fine senior year. He is probably the Bruins first option on the shot that "has to be made." At 16.3 he is one of five Bruins averaging double figure scoring, joining Leaf, guard Isaac Hamilton (14.7), Ball, guard Aaron Holiday (13.9) and Welsh (11.1).
Holiday is an interesting story. The brother of former UCLA and NBA player Jrue Holiday, he started all 32 games last year and averaged 10.3 points per game. This year he has yet start, but plays 26.5 minutes per game. With four quality guards and only so many starting spots to go around (the Bruins usually open with three) he was the odd man out.
"I didn't look at it as disappointing," Holiday told the Los Angeles Daily News. ed. "I felt like I did all right last year, but I still have a lot to prove. I still need to get better. This is just part of that process."
In October, Alford met with all four guards and explained that "it wasn't ideal" for each of them to be a starter, that the Bruins also had enough inside talent to be more balanced than that.
"I said, ‘With the eliteness that you all have, it's about being efficient,' " Alford recalled. "Their efficiency is way up from last year. It's been a great rotation so far. They know the roles they're playing are key."
He is thriving in his new job, and broadcaster Bill Walton called him the best sixth man in the country.
UCLA is not shy about casting off from long range. The Bruins have tried 377 three-point attempts this year, second in the conference to Arizona State's 407. The Bears were able to tame ASU's shooters beyond the arc, and held them 1-for-11 in the second half. The Bruins present a slightly different problem.
"On the perimeter they're similar," Singer said of the Sun Devils and the Bruins. "They both have three or four guys on the court at all times that can shoot threes. But the difference is that UCLA has more of a post presence. We're going to have to worry about that. But I think we are going to guard them similarly."
The Bruins are concerned about Hamilton's sudden inability to find the basket. He averaged 8.6 over his last five games and has made just two of 20 three-point shots in that span. The leading returning scorer (16.8 ppg last year) in the conference he had only three games all season when he scored in single digits.
"It's a slump," said Hamilton, who is averaging 14.7 points this season while making 46.5% of his shots and 36.3% of his three-pointers, "but it's nothing I can't bounce back from."
- UCLA leads the series 136- 103. Cal won last year's only meeting, 75-63 at Haas Pavilion.
- Seven of UCLA's regular rotation member have more assists than turnovers.
- Both Ali and Olesinki have been practicing and are close to being ready. Steve Alford said it would be up to them if they want to play or redshirt this season. If they decide to play, the Cal game could be their debut.
- Cal center Kameron Rooks, out five weeks with knee surgery, reportedly went at full speed during practice this week, and just might be back. Cuonzo Martin was unavailable to the media this week, so there is no official word.
- This will be the third team ranked in the top 25, following Virginia and Arizona, the Bears have played in their last four games.
- This is Cal's first true road game this year. The other contests away from Harmon were on neutral courts. "We have a veteran team, we'll be all right," Singer said. "We have little margin for error since we won't have the energy of the fans. We will have to create our own energy."