By Phil Collin
Fullerton, Calif., Nov. 22, 2016 – Yes, as a matter of fact UCLA is primed and ready for its first appearance in the Wooden Legacy tournament in seven years.
The Bruins (4-0), picked to finish third in the Pac-12 standings this season, are already sending notice that might be an underestimation of their prospects for the campaign and it’s been a pair of freshmen who have crashed onto the scene to lead them.
Through the first four games, it’s been a seamless transition for freshman guard Lonzo Ball and freshman forward TJ Leaf. After UCLA dismantled Long Beach State on Sunday with a 114-77 victory, Coach Steve Alford had a glowing assessment.
“I thought this was the best we have played,” Alford said. “We had great energy, great focus and did tremendous things offensively, again. Defensively, I thought this was the best that we have been.”
The Bruins have bolted out of the gate averaging 105.8 points and six players are averaging double figures in scoring.
The early leader is the 6-foot-10 Leaf, who leads UCLA in scoring (20.3 points) and rebounding (10 per game). But the player drawing the raves is 6-6 guard Lonzo Ball, who is averaging 16.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 9 assists per game.
Ball has been named to the 50-person watch list for both the Naismith Trophy (presented by the Atlanta Tipoff Club) and the John R. Wooden Award. He has shot 61.1 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from 3-point range. In UCLA’s season opener on Nov. 11, he had 19 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds.
The Bruins open the Wooden Legacy Thursday at Cal State Fullerton with a first-round game against Portland (3-0) of the West Coast Conference. Portland is guided by first-year coach Terry Porter, the 17-year NBA veteran.
Senior guard Alec Wintering, a preseason All-WCC selection, leads the Pilots. Wintering earned All-WCC First Team honors as a junior after averaging 18.3 points and 4.9 assists per game last season. This season, Wintering is averaging 19.0 points and 8.0 assists per game thus far as Portland has a plus-25.0 scoring margin and won all three games by double digits.
Prior to the Bruins and Pilots tipping off, Dayton (2-1) will take on Nebraska (3-0) in the first meeting between the schools.
The Flyers, of course, are no strangers to pestering larger schools. Last season, they went 4-1 against Power 5 schools and in the last 10 years, are 31-12 in such clashes.
The senior class of Kyle Davis, Scoochie Smith and Kendall Pollard are on pace to be the winningest class in UD history. The trio has 80 victories in their first 109 games, two wins ahead of the pace of the Class of 2011 (Chris Wright, Devin Searcy, Peter Zesterman and Logan Nourse). That class finished with 97 wins.
Nebraska has won all three of its games at home by an average margin of 21.7 points. Senior guard Tai Webster leads the Cornhuskers with a 17.7 scoring averge, but seven of the top nine scorers on the roster are either freshmen or sophomores.
Sophomore forward Jack McVeigh is coming off a career-best 21-point performance against Louisiana Tech. McVeigh is averaging 14.7 points and has hit 10 of his 19 3-point tries.