For college basketball players at the start of every season, it's always tough to truly make a name for yourself and establish a national reputation. Each year, only a few studs are able to cut through and make a mark. Less than three weeks into this season, these are the guys who have managed to gain traction and catch people's attention on a national level: Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk; Kansas' Josh Jackson and Frank Mason III; Michigan State's Miles Bridges; and UCLA's Lonzo Ball.
Ball, for the most part, is the standout of the bunch. UCLA is setting itself up as the team du jour in college hoops, particularly after the Bruins handed Kentucky a 97-92 loss at Rupp Arena on Saturday.
This is the kind of group that could bring in drive-by college basketball fans and make them want to track what they do all season long. It's led by Ball and his tremendous feel and presence on the floor, but the team is much more than that.
You'd best start paying attention to 9-0 UCLA now, especially after its win at previously undefeated Kentucky. Far from perfect but tremendously, endlessly watchable, UCLA is quite possibly going to become the "it" team to watch going forward.
Five reasons why you want to get on the UCLA bandwagon right now:
1. Ball don't lie
Lonzo's perspective on the floor is as close to NBA-level entertainment as you're going to see this season in college hoops. He's got that rare ability to see two plays head, to nonchalantly use angles -- and create them -- to make his teammates look even better. The last passer college basketball had who was this keen on the court was D'Angelo Russell at Ohio State a couple of years back. Ball might be better. He's already got a great NBA draft reel. Reminder: his season is eight games in.
This pass is casual and easily overlooked, but you won't find three players who can do this, let alone with the quiet confidence of Ball.
Check out the Steph Curry-like stepback three he hit to close the first half vs. Kentucky:
Here's a reel of what he's done this year prior to Kentucky:
Coming into the season, Ball was seen as a high-probability top-2o NBA pick, but his early season returns have more NBA personnel confident that he'll go in the lottery. Breaking close to the top five is possible, but performing well against a super-team like Kentucky is mandatory to making that kind of jump. Nevertheless, Ball's impossible to take your eyes off of. His presence is easy to spot, and it's why fans, NBA scouts and everyone, really, are talking about him so much so early into the year.
He's a made-for-Vine star, someone with NBA appeal at the college level. Again, this is similar to what D'Angelo Russell pulled off while at Ohio State. Twitter's basically fallen in love with the kid.
They sell Lonzo Ball jerseys yet?— Keyshawn Jr. (@keyshawnnnn) November 28, 2016
Lonzo Ball is Derrick Rose physically and Jason Kidd instinctively. Appointment television for any basketball junkie. Kid is a stud.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) November 28, 2016
Lonzo Ball looks every bit of a Top 5 pick and could go as high as #2 IMO. Elite tools, feel and instincts on both ends. Touch from deep.— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) November 28, 2016
These go on and on, and they don't feel like hyperbole.
Ball has been, and very likely will continue to be, that good.
2. Bryce Alford has no conscience
Alford was the only player in a major conference last season to average more than 16 points, five rebounds and three assists. But the real reason you'll want to watch him is his lack of a conscience. Alford has become one of the biggest shot-makers in college hoops. Onions, folks. Shot clocking winding down or a game that's close in the final minute, Alford wants the ball, wants the pressure -- and he's making a lot of big shots. Remember when he melted Russell Westbrook's face last season after he coolly killed Arizona with a winning 3-pointer?
Alford's confidence and Ball's ability combo for what could become college basketball's most entertaining backcourt -- right there in competition with De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk at Kentucky. The early returns on Alford and Ball from deep are great (Alford's at 42 percent from beyond the arc, Ball at 46). In terms of pure long-distance confidence, Alford is college basketball's Steph Curry. He's not the pure shooter or dynamic playmaker Curry was, but he can and will drain it from just about anywhere on the floor.
3. Here's why UCLA qualifies as an underdog
UCLA. Eleven national titles. Wooden. None of this indicates underdog, but in the context of this season, yeah, they are. Right now, with an undefeated record and a No. 8 ranking (that will surely be shooting up) it doesn't seem like there's too much little-guy stuff going on. But remember where this program was last season, when they were below .500. The program has lacked widespread appeal since the latter years of the Ben Howland era.
Now this looks like the most interesting and riveting team in Westwood since Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook were on campus. That's what makes this fun. UCLA feels like UCLA.
Without Ball, UCLA is probably still a pretty decent team. But we're not talking about them like this without him. His vision and composure is good enough that he'll make UCLA a threat come NCAA Tournament time. I'm very far from saying Ball will pull a Carmelo Anthony or Kemba Walker and carry a team to a title, but he does have the capability to grow into that kind of superstar role. And Vegas, by the way, is starting to figure this out. UCLA was a 55-1 pick to win the national title back in September.
Entering the weekend, they moved up to 20-1. Now that number should, soon, shrink again.
4. This is a Steve Alford F-you tour
Specifically, this is his F-you tour for all the Bruins fans who love to hate him. That said, the Bruins are so good that even the most jaded UCLA fans -- the people who've never given Alford a fair shake from day one -- have to begrudgingly love what's happening with their team. Alford was under fire in a massive way after the Bruins finished below .500 last season. Now UCLA is set up to be the biggest turnaround team in the sport.
5. Pace, shooting, what's not to love?
Ultimately, you want to watch college basketball at its best. And it's at its best with lottery-pick prospects, plenty of offense, fast-paced tempo and shot-making. UCLA checks every one of those boxes. T.J. Leaf, also a freshman, could well be an NBA pick down the road. Thomas Welsh, a 7-footer with a gracious touch, is absolutely going pro. Isaac Hamilton is one of the most underrated players in America -- and he might be the guy who winds up leading UCLA in scoring.
UCLA's shooting better, combined, on 2s and 3s than anyone in the country right now. The Bruins' 63.8 effective field goal percentage far outpaces the likes of Indiana, Kansas, Villanova and Creighton, which are all entertaining teams in their own right, but still not built like UCLA. The Bruins run, they pass plenty and they hit big shots.
They're good enough and fun enough to the point where they could become a chic Final Four pick down the road. But we've got to wait on that. For now, get in early and enjoy the show -- it's been a minute since the West Coast had a team this fun and worth staying up for.