HOUSTON—UCLA basketball closed the final chapter of its whirlwind season in Friday’s 74-62 loss to Gonzaga.
The outcome, hardly a surprise, halted a tournament run that many believed never should have started, as Gonzaga clearly outmatched a UCLA team that was previously dismantled by the Bulldogs in December.
And yet, the sting of that December loss, though not season-ending, was far worse. In December, this year’s squad appeared an embarrassment to the legacy of a storied program.
Steve Alford looked in over his head, unable to piece together a talented cast of players into a united, coordinated force.
But March’s loss offers the silver lining of a potentially bright future.
Yes, Friday was the last we’ll see of senior Norman Powell, who did his absolute best to keep UCLA afloat against the Zags, hammering into the paint on several occasions and showing the grit and toughness that has become a trademark of his game in his UCLA career. His leadership and toughness will be missed and must be replaced.
But in 2015-16, the Bruins will return a young nucleus that finally gelled and matured in March. Sharp-shooting guards Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will remain in a Westwood. Big-man Tony Parker, an unstoppable force in UCLA’s third-round game with UAB, will also return.
The one question mark is ultra-talented power-forward Kevon Looney, who many are projecting as a lottery pick in the NBA draft.
“College is always a great place to build your character and build your game,” said Looney. “So I can see myself coming back, but I’ve got to talk to my parents about it.”
Should Looney stay for one more year, the forward will cement a formidable quartet of players that will be bolstered by the new editions of Aaron Holiday, brother of Jrue Holiday, and Prince Ali, a four-star guard whose hammering playing style have sparked some comparisons to Powell.
Those additions, coupled with the return of Australian forward Jonah Bolden, who was expected to make significant contributions this season, but was ruled ineligible by the NCAA. Should Looney leave, Bolden, a former four-star recruit himself, could step in at the power forward and team-up with Parker in the front court.
UCLA’s reward for curing their Winter woes? A new year with expectations beyond the Sweet 16.
Next season will be a crucial one for Steve Alford, who will have the opportunity to bring a battle-tested team capable of truly pushing the likes of Utah and Arizona in the race for the Pac-12 championship.