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Bama Basketball Breakdown: UCLA

The Crimson Tide welcome in one of college basketball's blue blood programs

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

After a needed week off for Christmas break, the Alabama Crimson Tide (8-3) get ready to host their toughest opponent to date in the friendly confines of Coleman Coliseum. The UCLA Bruins (8-4) haven't had their typical type of success thus far this season, as they have yet to register a quality win and are coming off an 83-44 beating at the hands of the loaded, top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats. However, this is still a quality team with a lot of talent of their own, and Alabama will have to play much better than they did in their last outing against Appalachian State if they want to come away with a win.

At first glance, this is a much different team than the one Alabama played a year ago when the Tide traveled to Pauley Pavilion. Last season, the Bruins were one of the most athletic, high-scoring teams in the country. They were led by guys like Jordan Adams, Zach LeVine, and Kyle Anderson. However, all of those guys have moved on to the NBA, and UCLA has had a tough time rebuilding in their absence. Steve Alford has had his work cut out for him in his second season, but there is reason to believe that UCLA can still turn things around and get back to playing at a high level, though a repeat trip to the Sweet Sixteen shouldn't be expected. The Bruins are in desperate need of a big road win, and that alone will make this team very dangerous.

Starting Five

  • PG Bryce Alford (17.6 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 6.3 APG, 1.0 SPG)
  • SG Isaac Hamilton (11.8 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.1 SPG)
  • SF Norman Powell (15.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.9 SPG)
  • PF Kevon Looney (13.5 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 1.9 APG, 0.9 SPG, 1.7 BPG)
  • C Tony Parker (10.3 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 1.0 BPG)

Nobody on this team will be mistaken for Adams, Anderson, or LaVine, but let's not act like this isn't a talented starting five. Alford (yes, the coach's son) has a strong stat line with 17.6 PPG on 44.9% shooting from the field, and he's been nearly automatic from the free throw line (90.7%). He's not the most athletic player, however, and he can be attacked defensively because of it. Alford also has his issues against better opponents, but I'm not sure whether or not Alabama can really be classified as one of those "better" teams right now. Hamilton is a solid player off-guard; his biggest asset is his ability to hit threes (40.4%), but he is a pretty good offensive player all-around. That changes when he heads to the free throw line, as he is only a 68.2% free throw shooter. It would be a good idea to stay on top of Hamilton, Alabama would much rather him go to the line than get an open look while in rhythm. He has also had his share of troubles defensively, so Alabama will need to capitalize on that. Powell, the lone senior on the team that plays, has had his hands full trying to navigate this young team through a tough early schedule. Like Hamilton, he shoots well while the game's in motion (44.3% FG%, 42.0% 3P%), but he has also struggled from the foul line (69.7%). Hamilton is the best of the backcourt players defensively, but he isn't a very polished player with the ball, as his 2.0 to 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio would suggest.

The Bruins' frontcourt got a much needed boost in talent this season in the true freshman Looney. He has some serious potential, as his double-double average indicates. However, he still has to fine-tune a lot of his more fundamental skills. His shooting numbers leave a good amount to be desired (46.1% FG%, 18.8% 3P%, 64.6% FT%), and he doesn't always play consistent defense. He is a very talented player though, and at times he can really take over around the glass. Parker has developed decently well in his third season, though his scoring needs work (54.3% FG%, 48.9% FT%). Both players stand tall at 6'9 a piece, and they are both well-versed in blocking shots.

The Bench

  • C Thomas Welsh (4.5 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 1.0 BPG)
  • F Noah Allen (1.8 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 1.3 APG)
  • F Wanaah Bail (1.5 PPG, 2.6 RPG)
  • F Gyorgy Goloman (0.5 PPG, 1.2 RPG)

The lack of depth is what has really hurt Steve Alford's group this season. Allen is the only guy off of the bench who can play in the backcourt, forcing Alford, Hamilton, and Powell to play a ton of minutes. The other part of that is that Allen isn't really any effective. He's not much better of a defender than Alford or Hamilton, and his shooting (20.0% FG%, 21.4% 3P%, 56.3%) is flat-out bad for someone who is supposed to be the first guy off the bench. Bail and Golomon both play less than 10 MPG and really don't have much of an impact other than their size: Bail is 6'9 and Golomon is 6'10. The seven footer Welsh is really the only guy who can effect a game on both ends of the court off of the bench for UCLA.

What to Watch For

  • Who Turns it Around? Both Alabama and UCLA are coming off of bad performances. Alabama needed every second on the clock to hold off a bad Appalachian State team at home, while UCLA got their hearts ripped out of their chests Mortal Kombat-style against Kentucky. With conference play right around the corner, both teams need to get it together right now if they want to accomplish the goals they set at the beginning of the season. Neither team is neccessarily in must-win territory, but both need to play better, more consistent basketball the rest of the way. One of these teams will take the right step toward that becoming reality Sunday night. The other will head into conference play without a significant win in the non-conference slate (Arizona State is looking like a non-tournament team right now).
  • Offense? Hello? Where Did Everyone Go? The Crimson Tide have officially reverted back to Grant-esque offense. Stale plays, a ton of standing around, poor passing, using up way too much of the shot clock, etc. Through the first seven games of the season, this looked like a completely different Alabama team. It's nice to see the signature Anthony Grant defense return, but does that have to mean that the Tide suddenly can't score for minutes at a time? Why not do both things well?
Three Keys to Victory
  1. Stay Within the System. UCLA has played a very AAU-brand of basketball this season, and it has gotten the Bruins burned when playing good teams that are well-coached. Kentucky has players that are better suited to run an AAU offense than UCLA does, and yet the Wildcats were able to dominate that game in part because they have bought into John Calipari's system. Grant has a very good defensive system. It would behoove Alabama to frustrate the Bruins' offense by thwarting their free-flowing style of play.
  2. Attack from the Perimeter. Keep in mind that this doesn't necessarily mean, "throw up every three you can take,". Alabama has a group of talented offensive players in the backcourt, and UCLA has really struggled to defend players like Ricky Tarrant and Levi Randolph. Alford and Hamilton play 35.1 and 32.8 MPG, repsectively. They also have defensive ratings of 106.5 and 105.0, respectively. This has been a serious weak point for UCLA, especially since their only other option off the bench, Allen, is also a bad defender. Alabama needs to let these guards go to work.
  3. Draw Fouls. UCLA has little to no depth on their roster this season. With Alabama getting the benefit of the home court, it would be smart for the Tide to be very aggressive with the ball and draw contact. An ideal possession for Alabama would be to have Tarrant/Randolph drive past Alford/Hamilton, get to the lane, and draw a foul. There is a serious drop-off after UCLA's starting five, and the Bruins only have four guys who can play significant minutes in the backcourt at all. Getting them into foul trouble will be the surest way of exploiting their weakness.
This is a big game for Alabama, regardless of how UCLA has performed recently. If Alabama can win this game and take care of business against North Florida, the Tide will go into SEC play at 10-3 with a pair of solid wins over PAC-12 opponents and no bad losses. A 12-6 record in SEC play would likely get the Tide in position to make the NCAA Tournament, provided Alabama can avoid bad losses in league play and grab a win against either Kentucky, Florida, or Arkansas. A loss would put Alabama in a position where they would really have to impress in conference play in order to earn a bid, which is a tight position to be in.

The game will tip at 5:30 PM CST and will be televised on ESPNU. If you happen to be in the area for the holidays, stop on by and give the hoops team some support.