Preparing for season, the young men’s basketball team stresses defensive skills

Sophomore guard Kris Wilkes has been out of practice for UCLA men's basketball with a bruise above his left knee for the last two weeks. Wilkes started in 32 of 33 games for the Bruins last season and averaged 13.7 points and 4.9 rebounds in 29.8 minutes per contest. (Axel Lopez/Assistant Photo editor)

Steve Alford and Murry Bartow go way back.

Bartow – a UCLA men’s basketball assistant coach who replaced David Grace in April – served as Alford’s graduate assistant coach when Alford was a player at Indiana. But all history aside, Alford said Bartow brings in a new emphasis on defense that the Bruins were missing last season.

“I (now have) somebody that I can really say, ‘You got all 100 percent defense,’” Alford said. “That’s helped me … especially at the offensive end, and trusting him defensively (will) hopefully (result in) more consistency at both ends.”

Despite being the second-best Pac-12 team in scoring offense last season, the Bruins finished 10th in the conference in points allowed and ninth in turnover margin.

Sophomore guard Kris Wilkes said Bartow’s new system has been working in practices and can be a game changer this year.

“We’ve got a new zone, and the way we play man is a lot better,” Wilkes said. “I’m just interested to see how it looks when we play different opponents.”

Wilkes finished inside the top four for UCLA in total rebounds, steals and blocks last season.

Alford said a key to this year’s defense will be limiting opponents’ three-pointers. UCLA held its opponents to 34.6 percent shooting from behind the arc last season, but Alford said he wants better.

“A combination of what we do with three-point percentage defense, what we do on turning people over and doing a really good job on the backboard,” Alford said. “If we can do those three things better defensively, I think that’s going to help us on both ends of the court.”

Freshman guard Jules Bernard said defense at practice has been notably different compared to the high school level, and that Bartow’s defensive coaching is allowing him to focus more on that aspect of his game.

“It (has) forced me to take more of a stand on defense because that’s one way you can get more minutes on the court,” Bernard said. “Just being strong and being quick, being able to guard more than one position is super important.”

The freshman out of Windward School in Los Angeles was a four-star recruit, and is one of several first-year players expected to see significant playing time this season.

Redshirt junior guard Prince Ali also said Bartow has brought new concepts and drills to practice, and that the assistant coach is never hesitant to tell the players when something on defense needs to be fixed.

“Coach Bartow will tell you about yourself. … He’ll tell you if you’re doing good, and he’ll quickly tell you if you’re doing bad,” Ali said. “When I’m not in a stance, he gets at me (and) he’ll get in your face.

With no seniors on UCLA’s roster, Ali will serve as one of the veteran leaders this season. Bernard, however, said a strength of this freshman class is the confidence it has demonstrated so far in practice.

“We believe in our abilities to play and I think that’s why we’re going to get a lot of (playing) time,” Bernard said. “We’re not scared of the big lights. … If we show our abilities then we’ll have opportunities to play on the court.”

Wilkes returns from injury

Wilkes practiced for the first time Wednesday after being out with a left-leg bruise for about two weeks. Alford said Wilkes will likely be available to play in Saturday’s exhibition game against New York Institute of Technology.

Wilkes averaged 13.7 points in 29.8 minutes of action during the 2017-2018 season.

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