LOS ANGELES (AP) — Led by talented freshmen Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf, No. 2 UCLA is back in college basketball’s upper echelon for the first time under coach Steve Alford.
The Bruins (9-0) are off to their best start since 2006-07 after upsetting then-No. 1 Kentucky at Rupp Arena last week , boosting them to their highest ranking since November 2007.
Ball has made an instant impact in what is expected to be his lone season in Westwood. He’s averaging 14.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and his 9.3 assists leads the nation. He’s also shooting 55 percent from the floor and 43 percent from 3-point range.
The confident newcomer even put his finger to his lips in a shushing motion to Kentucky’s fans.
“I really don’t like the attention like that,” he said Thursday. “It was a good win, but we still have a long journey to go.”
While Ball has grabbed most of the attention, Leaf asserted himself against the Wildcats with 17 points and 13 rebounds. He’s averaging 17.2 points and 9.4 rebounds while shooting 67 percent from the floor.
“Leaf and Ball have just been exceptional,” said Michigan coach John Beilein, who scouted Leaf three times while recruiting him in high school.
Ball and Leaf are among six UCLA players who average double figures in scoring, led by Isaac Hamilton with 18.1 points. The Bruins’ high-octane offense averages 97.0 points, second in the country.
“No one really cares what their numbers are like,” Leaf said. “We just want to win.”
Thanks to the arrival of Ball and Leaf, which invigorated veterans Bryce Alford, Hamilton and Thomas Welsh, things have changed quickly for the Bruins.
In March, fans were irate after a 15-17 finish and no postseason invite. The program’s fourth losing season since John Wooden was hired in 1948 prompted Alford to return a one-year contract extension he signed after his first season. He also wrote an apology letter to the fans.
“From about Christmas on, I mishandled the team and we did a lot of changing around and we should have just stayed focused on getting better,” Alford said. “We’ve done a lot better job of that this year and the talent is back up this year.”
Not a popular hire among the school’s older fan base in 2013, Alford guided the team to consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances in his first two seasons. Now, the players and fans are thinking much bigger at a school that owns a record 11 national championships.
“We’ve been talking about trying to get to Phoenix,” the younger Alford said, mentioning the site of the Final Four. “We’ve really been confident in ourselves and really starting to trust each other.”
The Kentucky win injected UCLA into the national conversation and is already having an effect on campus. Saturday’s home game against Michigan is nearly sold out, something that has been rare at Pauley Pavilion in recent years. The Bruins are averaging 7,481 through five games in the 13,800-seat arena.
“People have been congratulating us as we walked to class,” the younger Alford said.
In Michigan (7-2), the Bruins will find a team that plays at a glacial pace compared to how UCLA likes to run and gun. The Wolverines are allowing 58.2 points a game and holding opponents to 42 percent field-goal shooting. Their top scorer Zak Irvin averages 13.6 points.
“We have a bigger target on our back than ever. We’re ready for it,” Leaf said. “We’re going to try to establish our pace and get out and run.”
The Bruins are wrapping up finals on Friday and haven’t played since beating Kentucky last weekend. They had plenty of time to savor the victory, including on the charter flight home. Instead of sleeping, the players hit up Twitter and watched replays of their favorite moments.
But once they got back to practice, the younger Alford was quick to invoke his senior leadership.
“It’s finding that balance of enjoying what you’ve done so far but realizing at end of day it doesn’t mean much,” he said. “If you don’t continue to progress and move forward, it all goes to waste.”
The younger Alford has benefited the most from Ball’s arrival. The freshman has taken over ball-handling duties, allowing Alford to revert to his more natural position of coming off screens while playing slightly fewer minutes. Alford is in his final season playing for his father, who won the 1987 national championship at Indiana under coach Bob Knight.
“This team has a high, high ceiling,” Steve Alford said. “They know they haven’t come anywhere near what their peak is.”
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