It may not be hyped as such, but the 2013-14 season is a very important one for the UCLA basketball program.
No, there are no must-see freshmen like last year’s one-and-done top recruit Shabazz Muhammad or returning players that will knock your socks off.
However, this season marks Steve Alford’s very first in Westwood, which consequently marks the beginning of an era.
While the Bruins lost Muhammad and facilitating maniac and single-season assists leader Larry Drew II, they have the bulk of last year’s squad still intact, which has them slotted at No. 22 in the AP’s preseason poll.
Before UCLA officially opens its season with its first exhibition game on Friday, let’s take a look at the biggest storylines for the Bruins in the 2013-14 season.
The importance of Steve Alford’s first season as head coach of UCLA can’t be overstated.
Alford is entering a program and fan base with extremely high expectations for its basketball team. Just ask Ben Howland, who was released after leading his team to a conference title last season.
He is also inheriting a premier basketball team at a time in college sports (and in most sports in general) in which coaches are held to unrealistically high standards under the grounds of instant gratification.
Fortunately for Alford, a former college basketball star himself under Bob Knight at Indiana, he has 18 years of Division-I head coaching experience under his belt, including six successful seasons with his most recent team, New Mexico.
Nevertheless, the initial impression that Alford makes upon Westwood is integral to the quality and longevity of his tenure at UCLA.
There are many questions that fans and the athletic department want answered through Alford’s first stretch of games as UCLA head coach, most of which pertain to his leadership, instructional, and tactical abilities.
If he hasn’t already, Alford will be well served to trade notes with UCLA football coach Jim Mora, who has effectively turned around the Bruins’ program within the span of a little over a year.
UCLA still has three out of four players from its stellar 2012 recruiting class, which is why the team manages to be ranked in the preseason Top 25 despite losing its best offensive contributor and starting at ground zero with a new coach.
Fortunately, Jordan Adams, the Bruins’ best all-around player for the 2012-13 season, has bounced back nicely from a broken metatarsal he sustained in his foot in the Bruins’ Pac-12 tournament semifinal against Arizona last season.
While his shooting in UCLA’s two exhibition games was rusty, he nevertheless managed to score a combined 41 points while foreshadowing another great season on defense with six steals.
Out of the sophomore trio, the Bruins don’t need to worry about Adams. They do, however, need to keep a close eye on the development of center Tony Parker and guard-forward Kyle Anderson.
Due to several impressive individual performances in his freshman season, Anderson was elected to the Pac-12 All-Freshman team, but there is still plenty of room for improvement for the 6’9” New Jersey native.
Although he’s a versatile scorer (2012: 9.7 PTS), resourceful rebounder (2012: 8.6 REB) and nifty passer (2012: 3.5 AST), he needs to work on his decision-making and his defense in order to become a fuller player.
Coach Steve Alford is expected to start Anderson at point guard to begin the season, which means Anderson will have to mature rapidly as a player if the Bruins are to have success.
Sophomore No. 2 who is in need of development—if not a drastic turnaround—is Tony Parker.
Under Ben Howland last season, Parker rarely played due to constantly getting himself into foul trouble, fouling out in seven minutes played in his last game as a freshman.
That all has to change this season, as the Bruins will need a strong, dependable inside presence in order to have any success this season.
So far, it seems as though Parker is taking the challenge seriously, evidenced by his determination to drop 20 pounds to become more agile in his sophomore season.
Much like last season, UCLA has a shallow bench this season.
Barring forward David Wear, who will be relegated to the bench when his twin brother Travis returns to the lineup from appendicitis, that shallow bench is comprised of freshmen.
Although the Bruins managed to secure freshman forward Wannah Bail for this season, stud shooting guard Isaac Hamilton’s eligibility was denied for this season due to his previous commitment to UTEP.
In UCLA’s exhibition games, backup guards Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford and substitute guard-forward Noah Allen looked decent but will need to improve at a steady pace during the Bruins’ non-conference games.
Alford, the son of head coach Steve Alford (note: Alford’s son Kory, a redshirt sophomore guard is also on the team but likely won’t see much playing time this season), has bottomless energy but often gets overzealous on the offensive end, which he’ll need to improve.
Coach Alford is tasked with fast tracking these integral freshman bench players into capable college players, and if he fails to do so, they don’t stand much of a chance of doing any damage in the NCAA this season.
The most essential development will have to occur with backup point guard Zach LaVine.
The Bruins are very limited at the point guard position with Kyle Anderson running the offense for the first time as a starter, and his permanence as starting point guard isn’t set in stone.
With an unpredictable interior presence at the moment, UCLA’s success against good opponents, particularly those with good defenses, will depend upon its perimeter shooting.
While having a shooting guard like Jordan Adams who can knock down outside shots is important, it’s even more important to have another prolific outside shooter on the team who can spread out the opposing defense.
The advantage of having multiple threats from the perimeter was on full display for the Bruins last season. When point guard Larry Drew II dramatically improved his perimeter shooting, Adams and Shabazz Muhammad were given more open looks, and Drew simultaneously created more space for himself off the dribble.
Despite LD2’s impressive 43.3 percent three-point shooting percentage last season, UCLA shot a mere 33.3 percent from three-point range last season as a team. Even Jordan Adams, one of the team’s best three-point shooters in the initial stages of the season, sank down to 30.7 percent by the end of the season.
Perimeter shooting is of even greater important this season not only for the losses of LD2 and Muhammad (a 37.7-percent three-point shooter last season), but also because the team’s worst three-point shooter last season is now manning the point.
Kyle Anderson was overly aggressive from beyond the arc last season, registering an awful 21.1 percent from three-point land. As he continues to develop as a player, he’ll become a better outside shooter, but his performance from the land of trey last season was feeble.
However, although they are mere exhibition games, Anderson has already netted a pair of triples as UCLA’s starting point guard, one-fourth of his entire three-pointers for last season.
While they are sheltered by the grace period of the early season, UCLA shot a horrendous 14.3 (5-for-35) percent from beyond the arc in its exhibition games, and the team will have to start draining shots from the perimeter sooner rather than later.
You hear it all the time: “Defense wins championships.”
It’s true, but there’s a certain qualification for that championship-winning defense that isn’t mentioned in that maxim: continuity.
Defense is only effective if it’s played as a collective unit with immaculate chemistry.
You surely remember how Ben Howland preached defense as his creed, and yet his teams weren’t effective on the defensive end in his last two seasons at UCLA.
Why? There was no harmony amongst the players.
Last season, he had excellent defensive guards in Jordan Adams, Norman Powell, and Larry Drew II, but the team’s communication on defense was poor and the players didn’t seem to trust one another.
Coach Alford doesn’t preach defense quite as much as Howland did, but that doesn’t suggest that it’ll be a less important dynamic to UCLA’s success this season.
The offensive pizzazz of Adams, Kyle Anderson, and freshmen Bryce Alford and Zach LaVine means little if they can’t run the floor and play productive team defense.
UCLA has excellent defense from its starting guards Adams and Powell, but the forwards will have to hold their own on the defensive end if the Bruins are to be an effective defensive team this year.