Over an hour after UCLA’s game against Utah, freshmen Wanaah Bail, Noah Allen and Isaac Hamilton are in Pauley getting in some extra reps.
All three of them, drenched in sweat as the cleaning crew spruces up the arena, are averaging two minutes or fewer per game—that is, in the collective 10 games they’ve played.
Hamilton, of course, will have to wait until next year to play his first minutes of college basketball, as he was declared ineligible this season by the NCAA, but he’s still allowed to practice with the team.
However, Bail and Allen are both eligible and healthy but have been used sparingly by head coach Steve Alford, who is also a first-timer in Westwood.
That decision has UCLA running an eight-man rotation consisting of starters Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, Norman Powell, David Wear, and Travis Wear, and reserves Bryce Alford, Zach LaVine and Tony Parker.
It’s worked out nicely for the Bruins so far, as they stand within one game of first place in the Pac-12 with six regular-season conference games remaining; however, it’s not sustainable heading into March.
In the past five years, seven out of the ten teams that reached the NCAA championship game ran a rotation with at least nine players.
Two of the teams that didn’t were 2012 champions Kentucky and runner-up Kansas, which both ran eight-man rotations with starting fives that averaged over 30 minutes per game (UK: 31.3, KU: 30.6); UCLA’s starting five averages 26.6 minutes per game.
UCLA’s current rotation is rife with guards, but is stretched thin in the frontcourt, which could have unfavorable ramifications for the Bruins in the postseason.
Fortunately, UCLA’s offensive system favors guards, but that doesn’t negate the need for a formidable frontcourt.
In fact, the need for a strong frontcourt only increases in the postseason, when the Bruins will have to beat physical teams from the SEC, Big Ten or Big 12 in order to advance deep into the NCAA Tournament.
David and Travis Wear have become better defenders in their senior seasons, but they still leave plenty to be desired on the defensive end, and Tony Parker’s struggles to establish proper defensive position continue to eliminate his effectiveness in defending the paint.
Unfortunately, the Bruins will have to make do with the frontcourt arsenal they have in place. However, their collective mediocrity should have the coaching staff anxious about March.
What if one of the Wears or Tony Parker (or both) were to get himself into foul trouble, or worse, suffer an injury in an NCAA Tournament game?
In that case, Coach Alford would be forced to either extend the minutes of the eligible forward(s) (who are averaging a collective 20.8 mpg on the season) or have Kyle Anderson, who slides into the post from point guard, play the entire game with no rest.
That’s a precarious decision with either scenario, as this particular set of frontcourt players needs constant rest to effectively run the floor, and Anderson tends to get careless and overzealous when he’s fatigued.
That hypothetical predicament could be alleviated with a pair of talented freshmen who aren’t Bryce Alford and LaVine: Bail and Allen.
Even if Bail and Allen were playing on a regular basis, they wouldn’t be tremendous contributors—at least offensively—but they would give the team added depth that all championship-caliber teams have and could eat up minutes in the frontcourt if something were to go awry in March.
That’s likely Coach Alford’s plan regardless, but his strategy should be to get Bail and Allen some court experience before March instead of breaking the glass and thrusting them onto the court when UCLA is in a desperate situation.
Bail is a little rough around the edges but he’s an athletic, physical forward with impressive leaping ability and explosiveness who would be more effective than Parker if he were given 10 minutes a game.
Allen, conversely, doesn’t fit as well into UCLA’s particular scheme because of his 6’6” frame, but he can shoot and is crafty at crashing the boards.
Both players deserved to be on the bench, as Coach Alford has the most talented players on the court, but they need to get at least a few minutes here and there to stay fresh at game speed.
They both played in UCLA’s blowout conference opener against USC, but court time has been non-existent since then, as only Bail has played and was only inserted in one game because Parker and David Wear were in foul trouble.
It was a break-the-glass moment.
Those moments are much less nerve-wracking with a deep bench, which the Bruins have in theory but not in practice.
Well, they have it in practice, just not in games.