There was a theme that transcended the red eyes and vacant stares of a despondent locker room late Friday night inside FedExForum. It could be heard in the voices of UCLA players who sounded as if the bond they had forged over 31 victories could not possibly be shattered by one season-ending defeat.
Said Lonzo Ball: “The relationships I’ve built, can’t nobody take that away from me.”
Said Thomas Welsh: “This is an incredibly great group of guys.”
Said TJ Leaf: “Everyone in this locker room’s family.”
The Bruins’ immediate future hinges on how much of that family stays together. Ball confirmed he was gone after UCLA’s 86-75 loss to Kentucky in an NCAA tournament South Regional semifinal, off to the NBA after one spectacular college season. Leaf, a freshman forward, appeared to be wavering, weighing his potential selection as a lottery pick against his love for everything about his experience in Westwood.
Also facing decisions about their futures were junior center Welsh, sophomore guard Aaron Holiday and freshman center Ike Anigbogu. If everybody stayed, UCLA would likely open next season ranked in the top five nationally. If everybody departed, even a recruiting class ranked No. 2 in the country might not lead to more than a scattershot season.
“It would be great to have them come back,” Holiday said of his teammates, “but they have decisions to make as well and I wish the best for them.”
Potentially working in UCLA’s favor are its family ties — not just among current players but those already on the roster and the newcomers. Incoming power forward Jalen Hill was Anigbogu’s teammate at Corona Centennial High. Point guard recruit Jaylen Hands transferred to El Cajon Foothills Christian High after Leaf appeared in his final game for the Knights, but he played for Leaf’s father, Brad.
TJ Leaf has already pondered what it would be like to play alongside Hands, a fellow McDonald’s All-American whom Leaf described as “a freak athlete.”
“It would definitely be fun,” Leaf, the Bruins’ leading scorer, said a few months ago.
UCLA’s recent recruiting success is among the reasons Coach Steve Alford is staying put, a decision he confirmed to The Times late Friday night. Alford may not be headed to Indiana to coach the Hoosiers, but he is bringing a slice of his home state back to Los Angeles in small forward Kris Wilkes, another McDonald’s All-American, from North Central High in Indianapolis.
Wilkes seemed overjoyed about the Bruins’ prospects for next season, tweeting a photo of himself in a UCLA jersey Friday with a caption reading, “Ahh can’t wait.”
Wilkes’ spot in the starting lineup seems secure following the departure of senior Isaac Hamilton, the closest thing the Bruins had to a small forward. UCLA also will have holes to fill at shooting guard following the graduation of Bryce Alford and at point guard following the departure of Ball. Should Leaf and Welsh also leave, the Bruins would feature an entirely new starting lineup next season.
UCLA’s other newcomers are LiAngelo Ball, Lonzo’s brother who scored 72 points in a game for Chino Hills High; Cody Riley, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound bruiser of a power forward; and Chris Smith, a small forward who is expected to sign a letter of intent in April.
That’s around the time the Bruins will learn how much of their current roster remains intact. College players must declare for the NBA draft by April 23 and can withdraw their names until June 12. Whoever graces the UCLA roster next season will get to enjoy the Mo Ostin Center, the school’s $35-million practice facility set to open in the fall.
Anyone who doubts the pull of family influence should consider how much the Alfords have come to love Southern California even with deep Indiana roots. Steve’s son Kory is UCLA’s video and analytics coordinator, daughter Kayla attends Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks and wife Tanya is a constant presence in the second row of postgame interview sessions at Pauley Pavilion.
“I think she loves California more than anybody else,” Kory Alford recently said of his mother. “She was the one we thought was going to be hard to sell, but we all love it and everybody’s extremely happy. I think it’s a five out of five for us. All five of us are sold.”
The lure of UCLA is nothing new for a non-native. Remember that John Wooden also grew up in Indiana before coaching the Bruins for 27 seasons and to 10 national championships. He then spent 35 additional years in Southern California, dining on the same breakfast of two eggs, two strips of brittle bacon and an English muffin at an Encino cafe almost daily over his final years.
One more year of Leaf, Welsh, Holiday and Anigbogu would surely be sufficient for the Bruins.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch