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UCLA's youth should pay off eventually

Steve Alford's four-year tenure at UCLA has been nothing if not eventful. The head coach took the Bruins to the Sweet 16 in his first two seasons, only to preside over a difficult and disappointing 15-17 campaign in 2015-16.

That sub-.500 third season had some UCLA fans calling for the coach to be let go, but that was before 2016-17. With one-and-done freshman Lonzo Ball playing point guard, the Bruins beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena in December, posted a sterling 15-3 record in Pac-12 play, and spent the balance of the season ranked No. 1 or close to it nationally in terms of offensive efficiency.

Yes, John Calipari's Wildcats avenged their early season loss and defeated the Bruins 86-75 in the Sweet 16. Still, a 31-5 season led by Ball, a consensus first-team All-American, certainly qualifies as a success.

Which brings us to 2017-18. Ball is gone, of course, and so are TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu. All three freshmen decided to take a shot at the professional ranks. Meanwhile, Bryce Alford (the coach's son) and Isaac Hamilton have both finished their college careers.

As a result, the question marks for UCLA heading into next season are now down to Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh. Both players have declared for the draft but neither has signed with an agent, thus leaving open the possibility of a return to school.

Holiday is a career 41 percent 3-point shooter who would be the Bruins' leading returning scorer if he chose to come back for his junior year. Welsh is a reliable scorer on the interior whose offensive rebounding gave the already excellent UCLA offense an added boost last season.

Steve Alford would of course prefer that both his veterans return, but the roster scenarios in play for next season are hardly "experienced" versus "young." More like "young" versus "very young."

True, regardless of what Holiday and Welsh decide, Gyorgy Goloman will return, and Prince Ali and Alex Olesinski are both expected to come back after redshirting in 2016-17. Still, there's no question that this team will have a lot riding on its freshmen next season.

Alford is bringing in an outstanding recruiting class with four ESPN 100 top-50 prospects. The new arrivals will be led by Jaylen Hands, a 6-foot-3 point guard from San Diego. He'll be joined by Kris Wilkes, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill.

Venture a little ways outside the top 100 in UCLA's class, and you'll find Chris Smith and another familiar name: LiAngelo Ball, brother of Lonzo and son of the loquacious LaVar, was the first player to commit to UCLA in the recruiting class of 2017.

There are two notable characteristics about this incoming freshman class, and you can make a case that both facets are encouraging signs for the UCLA program. First, four of next season's freshmen -- Hands, Riley, Hill and Ball -- are from California. When Alford was hired, there was some question as to whether he could recruit effectively in his new program's backyard. With this latest class (not to mention in-state products last year such as Lonzo Ball, Leaf and Anigbogu), the answer to that question would seem to be yes.

Second, none of these top-50 players are ranked in the top 15 nationally. Maybe that's a good thing, at least in the long term. Obviously, Alford wouldn't turn down a player who was ranked higher -- as the oldest Ball brother was last year -- but the past four teams that have played in the national championship game (North Carolina the last two seasons, plus Villanova and Gonzaga) have been led by veterans. Players ranked outside the top 15 nationally have a better shot at becoming college veterans than do higher-rated prospects.

It's conceivable, if unlikely, that every member of this UCLA recruiting class could return to Westwood for 2018-19. More important, it's likely that most of the class will do so, giving Alford an experienced base of players to work from as he chases the next class of elite freshmen.

As for 2017-18, whether it's Holiday, Welsh, Hands or someone else who's leading the way, the Bruins' offense is virtually certain to take a step back. You don't score 1.20 points per trip season after season in major conference play, the way UCLA did against the Pac-12 last season.

There might be a fair amount of coverage of Hands, who will try to follow in Lonzo Ball's footsteps, but that's likely to be an apples-and-oranges comparison that does the newcomer no favors. Ball was blessed with highly accurate teammates such as Bryce Alford and Leaf (not to mention a fast pace) to help boost his per-game assist totals. Hands will live up to expectations as long as he takes care of the ball, plays good defense, and shows some judiciousness in terms of distribution and shot selection.

Speaking of D, UCLA can minimize what's likely to be a year-to-year drop-off in performance through the simple expedient of forcing an occasional turnover. The Bruins ranked No. 11 in Pac-12 play in that category last season, and a normal number of takeaways would help Alford's guys navigate a strange new world where, potentially, they're not the most accurate shooting team in the nation.

Alford has made three Sweet 16s in four seasons at UCLA, and while going 4-for-5 appears to be a stretch if Holiday and Welsh don't return, the Bruins' program looks to be in far better shape than just about anyone could have imagined in March 2016. The freshman class arriving this fall might not make a huge Kentucky- or Duke-level splash right away, but the newcomers could hang around long enough to become tomorrow's veterans. If that happens, and if Alford continues to recruit the West Coast as effectively as he's been doing, look out.

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