Four of UCLA’s starters are back, but the headliner for the men’s basketball opener will be freshman – and one of the top recruits in the country – Lonzo Ball.
Ball, one of 20 players named to the Bob Cousy Award watch list, and fellow freshman TJ Leaf are set to make their debuts at Pauley Pavilion for the first game of the 2016-17 season in a Tuesday night exhibition game against Master’s University.
Ike Anigbogu, the last member of coach Steve Alford’s No. 5 ranked recruiting class, will delay his home opener while recovering from surgery to fix a meniscus tear in his right knee.
Anigbogu was the linchpin in the team’s defense, but even without the center and sophomore guard Prince Ali, who’s out recovering from a torn meniscus in his left knee, Alford still has the depth to sub players in and out for the big man, something UCLA didn’t have last year.
The Bruins are coming off their first losing season in six years and their worst conference record since 2003 under then-coach Steve Lavin.
Last year, UCLA opened its season with a 38-point exhibition win over Cal State Los Angeles before dropping its first game to Monmouth 84-81 in overtime.
The team went on to finish 15-17 overall and missed postseason play for the first time under Alford.
Now, with three of the most talented freshmen in the country and depth on the bench, Alford and the rest of the team have what they were missing last year.
At practice last week, Alford said he “liked the pieces he had” and the implemented game plan was more focused and well-executed after weeks of preparation and blue-and-gold scrimmages.
After a trip to Australia and more than 22 practices playing against each other, the Bruins are feeling ready to not only test their game against fresh faces but also see where else the inexperienced bunch of players have to grow.
“We just need to see what we can do on both sides of the ball against everybody else,” Alford said.