The new year brings new opportunities for UCLA, but it also brings an assortment of challenges.
In the increasingly competitive Pac-12, the Bruins will be put to the test during conference play, and their destiny for March will be determined by how they perform during these integral tests.
Before UCLA begins its Pac-12 schedule on Sunday at home against crosstown rival USC, let’s take a look at what the team’s biggest challenges are during conference play.
The Pac-12 is the strongest it’s been in years, and two of the conference’s teams are currently in the Top 10 (Arizona and Oregon).
With the development of sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski and junior guard Nick Johnson and the addition of top recruit freshman forward Aaron Gordon, Arizona went undefeated in non-conference play and is currently ranked No. 1 in the nation.
UCLA will only face Arizona once this season (Jan. 9 at home), but it will be a vitally important game for their conference success, particularly after losing to formidable opponents Missouri and Duke.
The Bruins will be vying for the top two spots in the regular-season conference standings with the Wildcats, which will make their head-to-head matchup, UCLA’s second conference game, all the more important.
It will be a struggle for UCLA to beat Arizona even on its home court, but it’ll be a defining victory if the Bruins can pull it off.
With the same players in the frontcourt as last season, UCLA continues to face the same challenge in the paint.
Twin forwards David and Travis Wear are the team’s only seniors, which one would assume would give them an edge over the competition, but they still don’t possess the physicality to be effective in the paint on both ends.
They are both good jump-shooters, but their lack of physicality is detrimental to the Bruins.
Unfortunately, UCLA doesn’t have many options beyond the Wear twins. Sophomore center Tony Parker seems to be developing, but sluggishly and erratically.
Parker has had two impressive performances this season—his career night against Oakland (21 PTS, 12 REB) and game-saving effort against Alabama (16 PTS, 5 REB)—but his lingering downfalls endure.
While he’s a physical force, he still struggles with foul trouble, is a poor free-throw shooter and plays ineffective defense.
UCLA needs its frontcourt to come up big, particularly on the boards, if it is to excel this season.
UCLA plays well as a team when it’s leading, but as we saw in the Bruins’ game against Alabama, they have plenty of work to do in playing under duress.
Although UCLA took an early lead in the game, the Crimson Tide enacted a full-court press that overwhelmed the Bruins and forced them to make a series of costly turnovers that allowed Alabama back into the game.
Coach Alford noted after the game that it was good experience for UCLA in handling a press, but the team will have to quickly adapt to intense defensive pressure early in Pac-12 play.
UCLA will face one of the best defensive teams in the country, Arizona (6th in the nation in points allowed per game: 56.7%, as of press time), in its second conference matchup.
The Bruins face not only the physical challenge of pressure but its mental counterpart as well.
As evidenced in the Bruins’ losses to Missouri and Duke, they tend to play ineffective basketball when they are down in the second half, particularly with less than five minutes to play.
In key, game-defining moments, UCLA will need to rise to the occasion and play composed instead of scrambling like they have in games past.
UCLA has the advantage of starting conference play in Pauley Pavilion, but its final two Pac-12 regular-season games will be played on the road, which has the potential to be a roadblock to the team’s success in the Pac-12 Tournament and NCAA Tournament.
The Bruins’ final pair of conference games will take place up north against Washington and Washington State, respectively.
While neither team is expected to finish at the top of the conference, they will both give UCLA a tightly contested game.
Even with a much more talented team, UCLA lost to Washington State, 73-61, in Pullman last season.
Momentum is crucial heading into March, and the process of building impetus begins with the final games of conference play.
Wrapping up on the road is never ideal, regardless of which opponent UCLA is stacked up against.
Fortunately, the Bruins won’t have to play Arizona, Oregon or Colorado in its last two games, but they will still face a significant challenge at the culmination of conference play.
Leadership is essential to any great team, and on a young team like UCLA, it’s a challenge to formulate an effective leader.
Although UCLA has a pair of seniors in the Wear twins, they haven’t asserted themselves as leaders in their three seasons in Westwood.
The Bruins’ leading scorer, Jordan Adams, sets the bar high through example with his impeccable work ethic, but he isn’t much of an active leader on the team.
The one player who’s assumed the role of a leader on UCLA is sophomore guard-forward Kyle Anderson; however, while his intentions may be pure, his effectiveness as a leader in still questionable.
UCLA will need a successful leader, whether it be Anderson or someone else, to emerge and guide the team through adversity not just during the Bruins’ Pac-12 games but throughout their conference schedule.