PHOENIX (AP) — Coach Steve Alford’s best recruiting class for this season was expected to get UCLA back on track following the Bruins’ fourth losing season since 1948.
Few could have expected they would be this good this quick.
Led by freshmen Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf, UCLA is up to No. 2 in the AP Top 25 and one of six remaining undefeated teams as the Bruins head into the Pac-12 season.
Alford has gone from having people call for his job to leading a team being predicted to make a Final Four run.
“I’ve got a really good group of guys to coach, they’re a pretty good basketball team right now,” Alford said. “We’re trying to become a great basketball team, and that’s a process. That’s a journey.”
UCLA (13-0) were good early and caught national attention with a road win over then-top-ranked Kentucky on Dec. 3. The Bruins also have wins over Texas A&M, Michigan and Ohio State, and their victory over Western Michigan on Wednesday finished off their first undefeated non-conference season since 1994-95.
UCLA will be the favorite when the Pac-12 season starts next week, but the Bruins have a long way to go and a lot of good teams to get through if they want to win the conference title.
The Pac-12 has three other ranked teams, including undefeated No. 23 Southern California, and every team but one has a winning record.
It should be fun to watch. Here’s a few things to look for:
TROJANS RISE: USC had modest expectations after following a five-win season with an NCAA Tournament berth last season. Coach Andy Enfield’s high-flying crew has blown those away. The Trojans (11-0), picked seventh in the Pac-12 preseason poll, have their first 11-game winning streak since opening the 1971 season 16-0, when they finished 24-2. USC’s strength of schedule isn’t exactly a gauntlet of power teams — its best win was over Texas A&M — which is why the Trojans have made slow progress in the AP Top 25. Still, until someone beats them, don’t doubt the Trojans.
SLOW-STARING DUCKS: Oregon opened the season with two losses in its first four games, prompting questions of what’s wrong with the Ducks? Nothing, really. Oregon typically starts slow under coach Dana Altman and the Ducks were without leading scorer Dillon Brooks for the first three games after offseason foot surgery. Since losing to Georgetown in the opening round of the Maui Invitational, the Ducks have won nine straight and moved up to No. 20 in the AP Top 25. Oregon is loaded with talent and will certainly make a run at repeating as Pac-12 champion.
ARIZONA’S DEPTH: The Wildcats took a hit when Terrance Ferguson, the marquee name in Sean Miller’s latest recruiting class, opted to play overseas instead of Tucson. Forward Ray Smith was forced to retire after tearing an ACL for the third time during an exhibition game and point guard Parker Jackson Cartwright sprained his right ankle in the seventh game of the season. Despite being down to seven scholarship players, the 18th-ranked Wildcats (11-2) have continued to find ways to win behind their freshmen trio of Lauri Markkanen , Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins. Jackson-Cartwright appears to be ahead of schedule, too, so Arizona should only get better.
FULTZ’S IMPACT: Markelle Fultz arrived at Washington as the most highly-touted recruit in program history. The do-everything point guard has lived up to the hype, leading the Huskies with 22.4 points per game while shooting 49 percent from the field and 48 percent from 3-point range. He also averages 6.6 rebounds and 6.3 assists. Fultz hasn’t been able to carry Washington by himself, though. The Huskies lost to Yale at home early in the season, had a four-game losing streak and will enter Pac-12 play at 7-5.
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