Why UCLA's Basketball Program Will Win Big Next Year

Why UCLA's Basketball Program Will Win Big Next Year

Why you should care

Because one person can make all the difference.

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Lonzo Ball didn’t lose a game as a high school senior in Chino Hills, California. The 6-foot-5 point guard jacked up the kind of threes that Steph Curry dreams of, stuck to his opponents like a glove and catapulted full-court outlet passes about as often as you look down to check your phone. Ball made high school coaches use every inch of the court. He’s “one of the best passers I’ve seen at this level,” says Josh Gershon, a West Coast scout.

And now Ball will play for UCLA — OZY’s pick as the next powerhouse college program for years to come. Their ceiling? A Pac-12 title and even an NCAA championship. Ball isn’t the Bruins’ only top 25 recruit this year, according to Scout.com — UCLA will also have T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu — and he’s not even its only Ball. Two of Lonzo’s younger brothers, LiAngelo and LaMelo, have also committed to UCLA. So has Jaylen Hands, a five-star point guard from the high school class of 2017.

Thanks to Lonzo, we suspect all of the Bruins will get better. Coach Steve Alford will be able to run a sped-up offense and play the whole roster to its strengths. Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will become go-to scoring wings. Thomas Welsh will complement Ball as a pick-and-pop option. Ike Anigbogu will defend inside. T.J. Leaf will be freed up to get out in transition, and Jonah Bolden will be able to become a defensive stalwart. “You look at what they’ve assembled talent-wise and it’s difficult to find many teams that have more than what they have,” college basketball writer Sam Vecenie tells OZY. “They’re easily eight to nine players deep.”

They couldn’t defend, they couldn’t mesh as a cohesive unit and they lost to rival USC three times by a combined 57 points.

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Lonzo Ball puts up the shot during the 2014 Adidas Nations.

Source Kelly Kline / Getty

This is a wild improvement from recent memory, as the Bruins did not recruit a single top 25 player a year ago. Their record: 15-17. They couldn’t defend, they couldn’t mesh as a cohesive unit and they lost to rival USC three times by a combined 57 points. Alumni and students were peeved. On March 14, a plane flew over campus trailing a banner that announced “UCLA DESERVES BETTER! FIRE ALFORD!” In truth, UCLA has spent many of the past 41 years in a sputter, with one measly championship to its name. In a sport where winning sustains legacy — and keeps the recruiting pipeline flowing — all that losing can start to look like a death spiral.

The good ol’ days ended before any of today’s players were conceived. Between 1964 and 1975, coach John Wooden did everything in his power to help his team win — and ended up pulling together a roster of future NBA Hall of Famers. Their run accumulated 10 titles in 12 seasons; no team has come close since.

Could this be the start of a turnaround? As it turns out, one year and one recruiting class might just be enough to let UCLA bask in glory days ahead. It’s happened to other programs. Just take the University of Washington, a Pac-12 neighbor, and its captures of Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss last year. Washington missed the tournament, but both players went in the first round of the 2016 NBA draft as freshmen.

This year, while Duke and Kentucky are formidable, “UCLA is a top 10 team in college basketball,” says Vecenie. Much of that is due to Ball and what he may unlock for his teammates. Of course even the best prospects can be busts, but maybe Ball and the rare crop of talent coming in are the stars UCLA has sorely missed.

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