It’s just an exhibition game, but the circumstances around UCLA men’s basketball’s Wednesday night matchup with Cal State Los Angeles give it plenty of importance.
With UCLA, which usually begins the regular season at home, heading to Shanghai, China, for its opener against Georgia Tech on Nov. 10, Wednesday becomes a crucial opportunity for the young, inexperienced roster to get acclimated to the college game.
“Usually, it’s a home opener, so they’re at home, they’re comfortable,” said coach Steve Alford before Tuesday’s practice. “They’ve never had a college basketball game before, and now you’re doing that in Shanghai. … And then it’s an (Atlantic Coast Conference) opponent.”
Alford would have liked to play two exhibition games before the Bruins went to China, but the trip was planned too late in the scheduling process, he said.
“We’ve only got one – and that’s why (Wednesday) night is a really big dry run for us,” Alford said. “We just have to make sure that they check into the game the right way, they understand timeouts. Because as freshmen, you can’t assume anything.”
With only three members of last year’s regular rotation – junior guard Aaron Holiday, senior forward Gyorgy Goloman and senior center Thomas Welsh – returning, the Bruins will be leaning heavily on inexperienced options.
Six different freshmen, led by five-star guards Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes, should be in the mix for playing time, along with two redshirt sophomores forward Alex Olesinski and guard Prince Ali, who sat out last season with injuries.
“We’ve really got eight new guys,” Alford said.
The young squad will get its first taste Wednesday of a college-size crowd, which Holiday said represented the biggest adjustment area for him as a freshman.
“They’ve adjusted to the athleticism throughout practice, so now it’s just the crowd they have to adjust to, really,” Holiday said.
Bruin fans should have plenty to be excited about, as they won’t have to wait long to get a glimpse of the talented freshman class Wednesday night, with Hands and Wilkes both slated to start, according to Alford.
“With Wilkes and Hands, you’ve got two guys who are just really, really talented,” Alford said. “(They) play the game fast and allow us to do things both offensively and defensively that I think to start the game is very good for us.”
Joining the two prized freshmen in the starting lineup will be Holiday, Goloman and Welsh.
Considering how much the team pushed the pace last year with Lonzo Ball at the helm, it might seem crazy to hear Holiday say the Bruins would play even faster this season.
The difference, Holiday said, will be the defense.
“I think we’ll play defense a little better than last year,” Holiday said. “If we get stops, we’ll be out (on the break).”
Defense was the Achilles’ heel of last year’s squad, but there is reason to believe UCLA will improve on that end. This year’s team is more vocal, Alford said, and has length throughout the lineup.
“We’re so long,” Wilkes said. “So I think defending well on the defensive end will be really great for us and will just make offense easy.”
One area the coaches have focused on recently is rebounding, which Alford said was lacking during the team’s scrimmage this past week.
“We should be a very good rebounding team,” Alford said. “We’ve got long, big guards and we’ve got good size up front.”