Much like the city of Los Angeles itself, the phrase “new year, new me” is frivolous, a saying that’s devoid of any intrinsic value. But as 2018 has transitioned into 2019, UCLA has fully embraced the saying — as much as a college program can, anyhow.
Steve Alford, at one point or another, was going to be fired. The firing has been years in the making, but the 15-point loss to Liberty was the straw that didn’t just break the camel’s back, but killed it entirely.
UCLA’s athletic department had to act, especially considering that loss was just one of four straight, and athletic director Dan Guerrero sent Alford to the guillotine known as unemployment.
Alford’s only claim to making history in Westwood was the result of his incompetence: This marked the first time in program history that a head coach was sacked midseason.
The fate of the Bruins is no longer of Alford’s concern. That responsibility has been bestowed upon interim head coach Murry Bartow, son of former UCLA head coach Gene Bartow.
In the first game of the post-Alford era, the Bartow-led Bruins looked much more like the team many expected to compete for a conference championship.
With Bartow calling the shots, UCLA snapped its four-game losing streak and easily handled Stanford, 92-70, at Pauley Pavilion for its first conference win of the season.
While many people have criticized this group for only caring about personal accolades and future NBA aspirations, these Bruins played some of their better team basketball of the season on both ends of the floor.
UCLA ended the game with five players in double figures and shot 51.5 percent from the field while holding Stanford to 37.1 percent shooting.
Leading the Bruins was five-star freshman Moses Brown, who logged his fifth double-double of the young season, with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Against the Bears, he might just stuff the stat sheet for the second game in a row.
Cal’s lack of size has been well-documented, with its biggest weakness being on the defensive end of the floor. In its first game of conference play, USC’s Nick Rakocevic and Bennie Boatwright abused their size advantage, with the former pouring in a career-high 27 points and the latter adding 19 of his own.
Cal head coach Wyking Jones’ game plan against the Trojans’ ironically worked into Rakocevic and Boatwright’s favor.
Instead of running out two big men, typically some combination of Andre Kelly, Connor Vanover and Grant Anticevich, Jones rolled out lineups that featured only one big man, forcing smaller players, Justice Sueing in particular, to check USC’s frontcourt. Considering the Trojans’ had 40 points in the paint, relying on just one big man probably won’t be the best course of action going forward.
Strictly from a size perspective, Vanover is Cal’s best chance of containing Brown. Vanover is listed at 7’3”, 225 pounds, while Brown is measured at 7’1”, 245 pounds, although the Bruin looks remarkably thinner than his listed weight.
Should Jones re-insert Vanover, it will be worth monitoring how many minutes he plays. Against USC, Vanover didn’t just record career highs in points (10) and blocks (3), but also minutes played (15).
In 10 games, Vanover is currently averaging about 10.2 minutes per game, which is significant considering Brown plays 23.3 minutes per game, including the game in which he only played eight minutes against North Carolina because of foul trouble.
Vanover may still be working his way back to game shape after only playing one game since Dec. 15, but without him in the ballgame, Cal is left with no one who can literally go toe-to-toe with Brown.