By BETH HARRIS, AP Sports Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Four starters gone, including three to the NBA draft. Coach Steve Alford has reloaded UCLA’s roster with another elite recruiting class that includes a new Ball brother.
With expectations always high in Westwood, the Bruins will be looking to improve on their NCAA Tournament results from last season, when they lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16. They went 31-5 and 15-3 in Pac-12 play behind star guard Lonzo Ball, who was drafted second overall by the Lakers.
His middle brother, LiAngelo, who answers to “Gelo,” joins the Bruins after averaging 33.8 points as a senior at Chino Hills High. Like Lonzo, he’s also a guard. Standing 6-foot-5, he has slimmed down 15 pounds to 215.
“He is a very good shooter. Is he my best? That may be stretching it right now,” Alford said. “He’s like all the freshmen, they’re trying to work themselves into a niche to find out what that role is going to be.”
UCLA has protected Ball even before the season starts, not making him available to speak at media day. Still, he’s impressed his new teammates.
“The freshmen have been spectacular so far and the returners have been great,” center Thomas Welsh said. “There’s a lot of things to be excited about.”
Besides Ball, TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu also left for the draft after one season and starters Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton graduated.
Here are some things to know about UCLA this season:
RETURNEES: While all eyes will be on Ball because of his family name and high-profile father, he’s one of six freshmen the Bruins will be counting on to blend with lone returning starter Thomas Welsh, a 7-foot senior, and junior Aaron Holiday, who was the team’s sixth man last season and took his name out of the draft to return. Welsh honed his 3-point shooting over the summer and focused on being more of a presence in the middle. He averaged 10.8 points, a team-high 8.7 rebounds and led the Bruins with 43 blocks last season.
NEWCOMERS: Freshmen guards Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes, a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans, will help replace the production of Lonzo Ball (14.6 points, 7.6 assists) and Leaf (16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds). Helping Welsh in the post will be forwards Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, two more highly touted freshmen.
PICKED THIRD: The Bruins were picked by the media to finish third in the Pac-12, behind front-running Arizona and surprising Southern California. Apparently, Hands didn’t hear. The freshman says, “I think we can win the whole thing.”
TOUGH STRETCH: The Bruins open the season against Georgia Tech on Nov. 10 in Shanghai, China. Their non-conference schedule includes the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City in mid-November, a game at Michigan on Dec. 9, a home game against Cincinnati on Dec. 16 and a neutral-site game against Kentucky on Dec. 23. “Probably most worried now about this November and December scheduling because of the road trips we’re taking,” Alford said.
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