Steve Alford doesn’t know if his team is on track with his preseason expectations. He didn’t know he was going to lose three freshmen because of an international shoplifting scandal.
What the UCLA coach does know is that he likes where his team is as it heads into its Pac-12 Conference opener Friday against Washington State at 8 p.m. at Pauley Pavilion.
“It really dramatically changed your concept of how you were going to do things offensively and defensively,” Alford said of the fallout of the China scandal. “I know we’re very pleased going into the conference season with where we’re currently at. I really like what this team has done. They’ve worked, they’ve grown.”
UCLA’s win over then-No. 7 Kentucky last Saturday was a display of the growth Alford was waiting to see. The Bruins took care of the ball down the stretch. They hit their late free throws. They got the necessary stops to close out the game.
Now they have to keep it going.
Here are five questions for the Bruins (9-3) as they prepare for the start of Pac-12 Conference play:
1. How far can Aaron Holiday carry them?
Holiday had the game-winning layup against Wisconsin. He sealed the Kentucky victory with a left-handed layup with 33 seconds left. But he also committed seven turnovers against the Wildcats and seven more in UCLA’s overtime loss to Michigan when the Bruins blew a 15-point second-half lead.
“Nobody was more disappointed in the Michigan game than Aaron was because Aaron thrives in those situations,” Alford said. “But as I told him, there’s time when you’re going to miss the last shot, there’s times when you’re not going to make the right play, but great players want the ball and they want to make those plays and he did that.”
Holiday, who leads the team in scoring with 17.6 points, has scored 58.7 percent of his points in the second half or overtime this year. In six games against teams from power conferences, that mark jumps to 64.4 percent.