Top 25 Countdown: #16 UCLA

Rotation

G Lonzo Ball (Fr.)

G Bryce Alford (Sr.)

F Isaac Hamilton (Sr.)

F T.J. Leaf (Fr.)

C Thomas Welsh (Jr.)

Bench

G Aaron Holiday (So.)

G Prince Ali (So.)

F Ike Anigbogu (Fr.)

F Gyorgy Goloman (Jr.)

UCLA’s penultimate losing season was achieved by a team that was led by Dijon Thompson and T.J. Cummings. It was Ben Howland’s first season on campus. It was also thirteen years ago. For the first time since the 2003-04 season, the 2015-2016 UCLA Bruins ended the year with more losses than wins, a year that was also just-extended Steve Alford’s third in Los Angeles. However, maybe more so than any other program in the country, UCLA is synonymous with tradition. It’s a program with a record 11 championships to its name. Yet, 10 of those championships belong to the Wizard of Westwood and were won over the course of 12 years. Post-Wooden, UCLA has won only once, and they have the immortalized 4.8 second Tyus Edney length of the floor lay in at the buzzer to thank for that.

But, the Bruins are supposed to win. And in Alford’s first two seasons on campus, that was an expectation that was reasonably fulfilled through consecutive appearances in the Sweet 16, albeit with one run that was facilitated by what must have been Woodenian intervention from above in a first round escape of SMU. Yet, last season the Bruins were unable to make it past the first round… of the Pac-12 tournament, finishing 15-17 and impelling Alford to explicitly reassert his own accountability to fans of the program. Fortunately, it appears that this year’s team is poised to at the very least return to the tournament and is also well positioned to make a run once they get there. And while UCLA is forced to absorb the departures of big men Tony Parker and Jonah Bolden, much of the optimism surrounding this season owes itself to the arrival of freshman Lonzo Ball.

An incredibly unique talent, and one of the highest regarded recruits in what promises to be one of the deepest freshmen classes in recent memory, Ball’s immediate insertion into the starting lineup will be nothing short of transformational. With him he carries an expectation that he will challenge the evolutionary constraints of the point guard position. He has positively elite vision and his overall athleticism paired with his size at 6’6″ should allow him to develop into force on the defensive end. However, his shot, while developable, is certainly inconsistent, as well his ability to create and make plays in the half court. Nevertheless, Ball will be given the keys to the offense and should ostensibly allow the Bruins to better fulfill Alford’s already demonstrated predilection to play up tempo. Even more fundamentally though, throughout Alford’s tenure thus far, UCLA has been without an actual floor general, and while I certainly harbor extreme affection for former Bruin Kyle Anderson, Ball fills a void that has been left unfilled for the last three years. Consequently, his presence on the floor also allows coach’s son Bryce Alford to slide off the ball, a position that much better suits his game and alleviates a significant portion of his ballhandling and playmaking responsibilities. Last year especially, the construction of the roster necessitated that the team be overly reliant on Alford to be both the primary scorer and distributor, a reality that proved to be far from advantageous. And even though Alford was statistically impressive as a playmaker a season ago, the Bruin backcourt will inevitably be better off if some of his burden is removed. Ball and Alford will be joined on the wing by senior Isaac Hamilton, a skilled and efficient scorer who led UCLA in points per game a season ago and finished third in the Pac 12. And even though he shot 38% from three last year, the transformation of the backcourt should allow both he and sophomore guard Aaron Holiday to improve on their field goal percentages, while also cutting down on their number of turnovers.

The most prominent returner in the frontcourt is seven foot junior, Thomas Welsh, who, with continued improvement of his jumper and his post game, should further develop into a consistent offensive threat inside the arc. However, with the departures of Parker and Bolden, the Bruin frontcourt will not only invariably rely on the maturation of Welsh, but will also be forced to rely heavily on five star freshman forward T.J. Leaf, a McDonald’s All-American, whose athleticism and skill at 6’9″ will need to be immediately present if the Bruins hope to fill a glaring void in a frontcourt that is not especially deep, even before the 4-6 week absence of fellow freshman Ike Anigbogu to begin the season.

This year has the appearance of do or die time for Steve Alford. However, with an infusion of young talent, most notably of Ball and Leaf, the Bruins seems well positioned to return to their spot at the footsteps of prominence. Nevertheless, this was a team that barely finished inside the top 125 defensively last season, and their improvement this season must begin there. And although Ball already looks the part of transcendent, it remains to be seen whether or not superior talent in the starting five will be enough to alleviate a marked lack of depth down the bench. But suffice it to say, we think it will.

Namedrop Corner

Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook

So this addition to the namedrop corner would appear to eschew our affection for the obscure and the otherwise anonymous. And yet, as UCLA’s most prominent and assuredly most idiosyncratic basketball alumnus, Russell Westbrook is just too compelling not to write about… and because, frankly,  well

There is no doubt that he became even more compelling because of everything that happened this summer, yet compelling in a way that only seemed to impel me even more fervently towards an effort to conceptualize him. To comprehend a figure that perpetually seems so deeply entrenched in his own individualism that he eschews even basic understanding. I don’t remember much of Russ from his days at UCLA apart from his game sealing dunk against Texas A&M in the second round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament. But something, even then, was undoubtedly magnetic about him. The 2008-09 NBA season was the first for the Oklahoma City Thunder (RIP Seattle Supersonics), but they moved across the country with a face of the franchise already in tow – Kevin Durant. They won only 23 games that season. And yet, it seemed so obvious that it would not take them long to ascend to the national forefront. After selecting James Harden with the third pick of the 2009 draft, the Thunder rode their transcendent young core all the way to the playoffs, where they earned the 8 seed and a first round matchup with the eventual world champion Los Angeles Lakers. But where I fell in love with the otherworldly and almost overwhelming mythos of Russell Westbrook was on a Tuesday night. April 20, 2010. Lakers-Thunder Game 2. 5:55 left in the third quarter. The Lakers were up 6. And then this happened.

roos

It was a game I watched from one of those faux-ergonomic desk chairs at a Holiday Inn in Omaha, Nebraska. Everything about the occasion seemed banal. But that didn’t mean that what was happening on the twenty inch screen just a couple feet from my face couldn’t do everything in its power to contradict the idyllic ordinariness of a Tuesday night in middle America. Like the man attempted to throw down on Andrew freaking Bynum from just in front of the free throw line. It was only his second year. And like I said, they won 23 games his rookie year. So this ostensibly qualified as my first HOLY SHIT THIS GUY IS NOT NORMAL moment of my Russell Westbrook experience. Like a regular human being was not supposed to attempt something like that. But he gave zero fucks. He turned around, walked to the free throw line, and calmly high fived his teammates. LIKE WHAT? YOU JUST TRIED TO PUT ANDREW BYNUM ON A MOTHERFUCKING POSTER. And yet it looked elegant and effortless in a way I’m still not sure I’m equipped to describe. He didn’t care what Bynum thought. He didn’t care what I thought. Russ was just gonna do Russ. And that’s the way it will always be. Throughout his career, Russell Westbrook has seemed more symbolic than he has a real basketball player. Emblematic of some level of unbridled kinetic beauty that we’re not yet privy to. He refuses to be reduced to anything by anybody. He has always seemed a supernatural figure, someone who if he was indebted to anything, it was to his own mythology. Which is why this summer was so interesting. It felt like maybe for the first time, Russell Westbrook, the human being was forced into the limelight whether he liked it or not. Kevin Durant left for the Bay. He left for the team he and Russ had blown a 3-1 lead to in the conference finals. So now, if he so chose, Russell Westbrook would be the unchallenged face of the Thunder. And that is exactly what he chose. Why exactly however, still seemed like a mystery. In many ways, he still seemed impenetrable. Revelatory as always because he is the best at what he does, Lee Jenkins talked to Russ and wrote about it in a piece that just recently dropped for Sports Illustrated. The title of the piece – “I Was Never Going to Leave”. What emanated from the piece is that Russell Westbrook is fiercely loyal. To his family. To his friends. To his team. And to his city. But also that he is deeply invested in the journey. In the ups and downs. He knows a championship will not be in the cards every year but he loves that it can be. In many ways he just loves. His overabundant compassion is what makes him him. It is easy to perceive him as the consummate individual. Obfuscatory by nature because he is so wrapped up in himself. But that might just fundamentally misunderstand who Russell Westbrook is. There’s a journey towards understanding, and that’s one thankfully, that we can be on with him.

 

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Top 25 Countdown: #15 NC State

Rotation

G Dennis Smith (Fr.) 

G Terry Henderson (Sr.)

G Maverick Rowan (So.)

F Abdul-Malik Abu (Jr.)

C Beejay Anya (Sr.)

Bench: C Omer Yurtseven (Fr.), G Torin Dorn (So.), F Lennard Freeman (Sr.), G Markell Johnson (Fr.), F Ted Kapita (Fr.), F Darius Hicks (Fr.)

Off the court over the course of Mark Gottfried’s tenure in Raleigh, he has gone toe-to-toe with some of college basketball’s giants and won several recruiting battles. Calipari, Self, Krzyzewski, Williams. They’ve all lost top-flight players to the Wolfpack. The issue at North Carolina State has never been the acquisition of talent. Translating said talent into large-scale success on the hardwood, on the contrary, has been a different story. Yes, the Wolfpack have reached two Sweet 16’s with Gottfried at the helm, but their ceiling has been much higher than that. Perhaps the best example can be found during the 2012-13 season. A loaded preseason top 10 team comprised of Lorenzo Brown, C.J. Leslie, T.J. Warren, Rodney Purvis, and Scott Wood among others had all the makings of being able to etch their names next to David Thompson and Jim Valvano. However, after struggling with inconsistencies throughout the regular season, they bowed out at the hands of Khalif Wyatt and Temple as an 8-seed in the first round. The aforementioned regular season inconsistency has been a common thread in recent years for Gottfried and company. Even in the Sweet 16 years of 2012 and 2015, the Wolfpack were an 11-seed and 8-seed respectively. To avoid the same pitfalls this season, NC State will have to take care of business before the calendar flips to March, maintaining the same quality wins they have obtained in the past while limiting the resume-crushing losses they have tended to suffer, which would do themselves a favor come Spring. Gottfried may finally have the team to do just that.

The 2016-17 edition of NC State owns an ideal personnel makeup similar to that of the 2014-15 team. The Wolfpack were an easy candidate to knock off Villanova in the Round of 32 two seasons ago with imposing size on the interior, the ability to make difficult shots on the wings, and stellar point guard play. Terry Henderson, Maverick Rowan, and Torin Dorn are undoubtedly capable of duplicating what Ralston Turner and Trevor Lacey were able to provide. Henderson, a former West Virginia Mountaineer, returns after a medical redshirt year and made a living in Morgantown burying contested threes. We should also expect Maverick Rowan’s second season in Raleigh to be far more efficient than his first. With the Wolfpack falling casualty to the injury bug a year ago, Rowan was given a fluorescent green light and was asked to shoulder much of the burden from beyond the arc without a ton of help, hoisting countless impossible shots from deep. With greater surrounding talent and a creative point guard more prone to create plays for others, Rowan will assuredly get cleaner looks, which only benefits NC State as a whole. Torin Dorn enters the fray as a transfer after one year at Charlotte where he was Conference-USA’s top newcomer, adding yet another shotmaker. Moreover, Dorn has the capability of acting as NC State’s backup point guard if bouncy freshman Markell Johnson falters. As for the starter at that position, the Dennis Smith era is at last under way after ample anticipation, and he will instantly compete nationally for the Bob Cousy Award and All-American honors. Adding Smith completely changes the complexion of the team, as he is quite simply the real deal. A legitimate top 10 pick in next June’s NBA Draft, Smith’s most conspicuous traits are his physical gifts. Eye-popping quickness and athleticism make it unfeasible to prevent him from getting into the paint. The only impediments to the future star’s limitless cachet are an inconsistent jumper and occasionally erratic play, but Smith can get to the rim almost at will. When his mid-range jumper is connecting, the point guard becomes nearly indefensible, and not to mention is a perpetual posterization threat even at 6-2.

The frontcourt blends experience with yet another blue chip freshman. Beejay Anya, Abdul-Malik Abu, and Lennard Freeman are the lone holdovers from the Sweet 16 team of two years ago and provide the experience. Abu’s growth from Year 1 to Year 2 in Raleigh was a promising sight for Wolfpack fans. The intrigue, though, lies with Uzbekistani freshman center Omer Yurtseven, another potential lottery pick. The questions swirling around Yurtseven’s eligibility, as what takes place with several international college imports, were answered a short while ago with the announcement of his nine-game suspension to begin the season. If anything, the suspension keeps the NC State secret for a bit longer. Yurtseven is the classic European stretch big, and his mobility and soft shooting touch have NBA scouts drooling, primarily why Smith is not the only one-and-done prospect on the Wolfpack roster. NC State’s frontcourt depth will give Gottfried numerous options based on matchups, and the committee combines to check all the boxes. Yurtseven and the extension of Abu’s range offer floor spacing. Anya, Abu, and Freeman anchor the interior, and Yurtseven has become an expert in the art of verticality. Gottfried, overall, will be running out an NBA-type lineup on a nightly basis. Without exaggeration, NC State’s talent will rival that of the likes of Duke, Kentucky, and Arizona. Love is nowhere to be found now, but the nation will quickly realize that is a mistake.

 

Namedrop Corner

Julius Hodge

juicehodge 

McDonald’s All-Americans increasingly rarely remain in school for four years, so the college career arc of Julius Hodge has become a lost art. Once the 7th-ranked recruit in the nation, Hodge a decade ago did what is unspeakable today, peaking in his junior season as the ACC Player of the Year. He and Herb Sendek turned the Pack into March regulars, and Hodge’s all-around game terrorized collegiate basketball for four years. Unfortunately, after being selected 20th overall in the 2005 NBA Draft, Hodge never translated to the professional level and fizzled out after two quick seasons. I have very little recollection of Hodge’s five appearances with the 2006-07 Milwaukee Bucks, a team that also saw minutes from Lynn Greer and Jared Reiner.