UCLA seeks return to NCAA Tournament behind top recruit Ball
LOS ANGELES (AP) Following up consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances with the program's fourth losing season since John Wooden was hired in 1948 doesn't cut it at UCLA.
Coach Steve Alford found that out real quick.
With fans irate after a 15-17 finish and no postseason invite, Alford returned a one-year contract extension he signed after his first season. He also wrote an apology letter to the fans.
''Coach Wooden raised the bar at UCLA; there's expectations,'' he said. ''When you don't meet or come close to those expectations, there are going to be consequences. I want the fans to know there is frustration on our part just as much if not even more so. Just letting them know we care.''
Then Alford went out and recruited the best class he's brought to Westwood since arriving in 2013.
Lonzo Ball is the headliner, a 6-foot-6 guard from nearby Chino Hills who led his high school to a California state title and undefeated season. Ball's arrival should allow Bryce Alford, the coach's son playing his final season, to shift to the 2 spot and allow Ball to focus on ball-handling duties.
T.J. Leaf is the other prized recruit. Like Ball, the 6-9 forward was also a McDonald's All-American who scored 3,022 points in his prep career in El Cajon in San Diego County.
''Bring what you brought out of high school to Westwood,'' the elder Alford has told his newcomers. ''That's why you're here, and that's what we need out of you as a team.''
The Bruins were picked to finish third in the Pac-12 by the media. They were 6-12 last season and had the 10th-worst defense in the league, allowing 76.7 points a game. Blending newcomers Ball and Leaf with the veterans and improving the defensive play will be Alford's top priorities as he seeks to engineer a quick fix that gets the Bruins back to the NCAA Tournament.
UCLA opens the season at home against Pacific on Nov. 11. The Bruins play five games at home in the first month of the season and make the short trip to Orange County for the Wooden Legacy tournament over Thanksgiving.
Their non-conference schedule is highlighted by a trip to Kentucky on Dec. 3 and a week later Michigan visits Pauley Pavilion.
Here are some things to watch this season with the Bruins:
RETURNING STARTERS: Besides the younger Alford, the Bruins return three other starters from last season: senior guard Isaac Hamilton (16.8 points per game), 7-foot junior Thomas Welsh (11.2 and 8.5 rebounds) and sophomore guard Aaron Holiday (10.3), who could slide into a sixth-man role with Ball's arrival. That gives UCLA the second-most returning scoring in the Pac-12 behind Stanford.
3-POINT LAND: UCLA's returning players shot a combined 37 percent from 3-point range last season and took 93 percent of the team's total 3-point attempts. Their top long-range shooter was Holiday, who hit 42 percent from beyond the arc. Hamilton was also efficient, shooting 38 percent from 3-point range.
BIG IKE: Ike (say EE-kay) Anigbogu, a 6-10, 250-pounder from nearby Corona could play his way into a prominent role as a freshman. He rounds out the touted trio that Alford landed, all of whom are from Southern California.
BETTER START: The Bruins will look to set a winning tone in their first game after being upset in overtime by Monmouth in last season's opener, one of a handful of embarrassing losses to start a season. They also lost openers in 2009 and 2011 under Ben Howland and 2002 under Steve Lavin.