In­ci­dent in China is the lat­est dis­trac­tion that Al­ford and the Bruins must deal with

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Ben Bolch

Steve Al­ford ap­peared at ease last week as he stood on the edge of the Pauley Pavil­ion court, his trim physique and thick mop of gelled hair al­most as rem­i­nis­cent of the sweet-shoot­ing In­di­ana school­boy as a 52-year-old nearly three decades into his coach­ing ca­reer. The mo­ment was a throw­back to a much sim­pler time. In a mat­ter of days, Al­ford’s big­gest worry would shift from shep­herd­ing fresh­man-laden UCLA through its early sched­ule to the jar­ring pos­si­bil­ity of re­turn­ing from a sea­son-open­ing trip to China with three play­ers stay­ing be­hind to deal with the fall­out from al­legedly shoplift­ing de­signer sun­glasses.

The big­gest pre­sea­son scan­dal to rock the Bruins’ pro­gram since coach Jim Har­rick was fired in 1996 over ly­ing about a re­cruit­ing din­ner has dark­ened more than the fu­tures of LiAn­gelo Ball, Cody Ri­ley and Jalen Hill, the fresh­men ques­tioned over shop-

lift­ing al­le­ga­tions near the team ho­tel in Hangzhou, China.

An ex­tended ab­sence of the three would greatly hin­der UCLA’s depth and abil­ity to ap­ply the kind of all­out de­fen­sive pres­sure that the Bruins hoped would make this team more com­plete than the one that ended last sea­son, when it was over­run by Ken­tucky in an NCAA tour­na­ment regional semi­fi­nal.

Ball, Ri­ley and Hill will miss the No. 21 Bruins’ opener against Ge­or­gia Tech on Fri­day night in Shang­hai, hav­ing re­mained at a ho­tel in Hangzhou while wait­ing for le­gal pro­ceed­ings to un­fold.

Some UCLA fans have gone on mes­sage boards to de­mand harsh penal­ties, in­clud­ing ex­pul­sion from school, if the al­le­ga­tions against the play­ers are proved to be true. Oth­ers have used the episode to fur­ther ques­tion the coach who has re­peat­edly taken his team to what’s known among some fans as the “Steve 16,” a de­ri­sive twist on reach­ing a Sweet 16 that goes back to Steve Lavin’s years coach­ing the Bruins.

It’s be­come a fa­mil­iar des­ti­na­tion once more un­der Al­ford. His first four sea­sons at UCLA, those fans would tell you, have gone Steve 16, Steve 16, Los­ing Record, Steve 16.

Asked whether he felt any pres­sure to go fur­ther, the ninth coach af­ter John Wooden did not sound like some­one haunted by the ban­ners hang­ing from the rafters above his home court.

“There’s only six pro­grams in the coun­try that have done what we’ve done,” Al­ford said last week, re­fer­ring to hav­ing ad­vanced to three regional semi­fi­nals in four years. “Did we have one bad year? Yeah. But we’ve had three re­ally good years.

“I also know the his­tory and I know the tra­di­tion here, but truth be told too, you’re talk­ing about from ’75 to cur­rent, there’s been one na­tional ti­tle. So I know that his­tory too. It’s just we know what our ex­pec­ta­tions are and we’re go­ing to play as hard as we can and do as well as we can.”

The Bruins are com­ing off a 31-win sea­son that was both ex­hil­a­rat­ing and some­thing of a dis­ap­point­ment. UCLA fea­tured one of the most en­ter­tain­ing of­fenses in the na­tion — a col­lege ver­sion of the Golden State War­riors — while rolling out a de­fense that more closely re­sem­bled that of the long­suf­fer­ing Wash­ing­ton Gen­er­als.

The team lost its en­tire fresh­man class in the spring: Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf and Ike Anig­bogu all off to the NBA draft. Sharp­shoot­ing guards Bryce Al­ford and Isaac Hamil­ton also de­parted af­ter ex­haust­ing their el­i­gi­bil­ity, leav­ing the Bruins with only one re­turn­ing starter in se­nior cen­ter Thomas Welsh.

“I think our of­fen­sive style,” Welsh said af­ter the Bruins scored 111 points last week dur­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion rout of Cal State Los Angeles, “is pretty much the same.”

Not en­tirely. The 7-foot Welsh has added three­p­oint­ers to an ar­se­nal that al­ready in­cluded one of the most au­to­matic base­line jumpers in the game.

UCLA hopes to pre­serve the of­fense that rein­vig­o­rated a fan base, help­ing the Bruins sell out nine home games last sea­son while av­er­ag­ing more fans than at any point since win­ning their last na­tional cham­pi­onship in 1995.

In­ter­est re­mains strong in a team that also re­turns ju­nior point guard Aaron Hol­i­day and se­nior power for­ward Gy­orgy Golo­man while adding McDon­ald’s All-Amer­i­cans Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes. A school of­fi­cial said sea­son ticket hold­ers re­newed at a 94% rate while the fan base added 800 new sea­son ticket hold­ers.

UCLA has also re­tained its most opin­ion­ated fan in LaVar Ball, the fa­ther of LiAn­gelo. The el­dest Ball said he liked what he saw from the Bruins dur­ing their ex­hi­bi­tion.

“They fi­nally picked up my style of play, that fast pace,” LaVar Ball said. “They ain’t run­ning no plays, they’re just throw­ing the ball to ath­letes in front of them.”

The pri­mary pace push­ers will be Hands and Hol­i­day, who will of­ten play to­gether in the back­court. Hands soared over his coach dur­ing a dunk com­pe­ti­tion last month at Venice Beach and will con­trib­ute to an in­flux of length and ath­leti­cism that should make the Bruins much stronger de­fen­sively, pro­vided their ranks aren’t thinned by the le­gal im­broglio.

The sched­ule could be­come a slog even be­fore Pac-12 Con­fer­ence play. In ad­di­tion to their China trip, the Bruins will travel to Kansas City, Mo., to play in a twogame tour­na­ment; Ann Ar­bor, Mich., to face Michi­gan; and New Or­leans to play Ken­tucky in the CBS Sports Clas­sic.

Ul­ti­mately, some won’t con­sider UCLA’s sea­son a suc­cess un­less it makes a fi­nal stop in San An­to­nio for the Fi­nal Four. Al­ford hasn’t par­tic­i­pated in col­lege bas­ket­ball’s big­gest showcase since play­ing for the Hoosiers and the Bruins haven’t been there since en­joy­ing the last of three con­sec­u­tive trips to the Fi­nal Four un­der coach Ben How­land in 2008.

In 22 sea­sons as a coach at the Di­vi­sion I level, Al­ford has never made it past the round that some have at­tached to his name. Go­ing at least one step fur­ther this sea­son, with a fully in­tact ros­ter, would be es­pe­cially sweet.

Gary Coron­ado Los Angeles Times

JU­NIOR POINT GUARD Aaron Hol­i­day (3) was a key re­serve for the Bruins last sea­son. This year, he’ll team in the back­court with fresh­man Jaylen Hands.

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