Entering the season, UCLA men’s basketball only had two known quantities in junior guard Aaron Holiday and senior center Thomas Welsh.
The Bruins’ frontcourt depth took another hit after freshmen forwards Jalen Hill and Cody Riley were suspended for shoplifting in China, forcing redshirt sophomore Alex Olesinski into the rotation as the first frontcourt player off the bench.
Olesinski recovered from a stress reaction in his foot that caused him to redshirt last season, and he’s coming off his most explosive performance of the season as UCLA (12-4, 3-1 Pac-12) prepares to host Utah (10-5, 2-2) on Thursday.
“It felt great,” Olesinski said Saturday. “I was open and (my teammates) just did a good job finding me and having confidence in me to make that shot.”
The forward made a career-high three 3-pointers as part of a career-high 14-point, six-rebound performance against California on Saturday. After the Bears narrowed their deficit to 11, they left Olesinski wide open in the strong-side corner, where he made a 3 and the subsequent and-1 free throw.
“With everyone else we have, you kind of forget about him and he can knock down shots,” said coach Steve Alford. “He’s a stretch four, a pick-and-pop guy who can do those things. He’s a skilled passer, he’s a very, very good position defender.”
After surrendering 19 points and 11 offensive rebounds to Cal forward Marcus Lee, Olesinski and the rest of UCLA’s bigs will face another challenge in Utah duo David Collette and Tyler Rawson. The pair of 6-foot-10 forwards have combined for 25.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per game to complement 5-foot-8 guard Justin Bibbins.
“They really attack the basket, and obviously a couple of them can shoot (3-pointers),” Holiday said. “That’s all we can do right now, is play defense. I think our offense will come when we can get stops and run.”
That might be a little challenging against a familiar opponent in Bibbins, who will be the most efficient scoring guard the Bruins have faced so far in conference play.
A transfer from Long Beach State prior to this year, Bibbins is draining over 45 percent of 3-point attempts while averaging 5.4 shots from long distance per game this season, which could pose trouble for a UCLA defense that has allowed the third-most made 3-pointers in the Pac-12.
In his three games at Pauley Pavilion as a 49er, Bibbins totaled 20 points on 7-15 shooting, although he made four of nine shots from beyond the arc.
“Grad transfer Bibbins is I think a huge key for them – he creates an awful lot of offense for them,” Alford said. “He and (guard Sedrick) Barefield are really good guards who can shoot it and score the ball.”
Holiday and Hands pack a punch
Conference play has allowed UCLA to push its advantage at the point guard position, as both Holiday and freshman guard Jaylen Hands have produced starter-like stats.
The junior leads the Pac-12 with 24.8 points per conference game while Hands is averaging 10.8 points per game, and both guards rank in the top 10 with 4.3 assists per game. The freshman has shown a proclivity to be active and aggressive with his hands in passing lanes along the perimeter, and he had steals and free breakaways on consecutive defensive possessions versus Cal.
But arguably more encouraging is his improved ball security – Hands is only averaging 1.25 turnovers per game in Pac-12 play compared to 2.6 per game in nonconference contests. This culminated in an eight-assist, one-turnover performance against the Bears during which he routinely drove into the paint and kicked the ball out to open shooters.
“He’s just becoming more comfortable,” said redshirt sophomore guard Prince Ali. “He’s starting to figure out what he has to do, trying to pick his spots right, and it’s paying off for him.”