Ben Howland needed to be fired. He had lost the team and his way in his last five years. Howland II (of the last five seasons) was both a failure on and off the court.
But not being Ben Howland is not enough to be UCLA basketball coach. Walt Hazzard, a true Bruin, who would do anything for the school was better than his predecessor Larry Farmer but he was not a UCLA level coach.
Which brings us to Steve Alford. Alford has to first not be Ben Howland and then prove he is a UCLA level coach. Next week we layout the expectations but for today let's just focus on the not being "Ben Howland II" part.
How is Alford doing? Ten criteria.
1. Happy Players.
All reports are the players are happier. As Nestor pointed out frequently playing for Ben Howland was often joyless. The players seem to be genuinely a happier bunch and it is good to see. I believe the official press release:
"My staff and I spent a lot of time getting to know them, just spending time with them," Alford said. "It was important to get those guys in our office, to be around them, to develop a relationship and a comfort level with those players. Thankfully, that trust has been built to where I think they'd tell you that they are enjoying things to this point."
So far +1.
2. A point guard recruit.
Howland's downfall can in part be traced to failure to recruit a freshman point guard. Alford has had some high profile failures and losing Jordan McLaughlin with no alternative to USC is unacceptable. Actually as of right now, it can be argued that Alford is worse than Howland. Alford must recruit a real point guard.
So far -1
3. Maintain the dignity of UCLA.
The last three seasons it was depressing how much time was spent on the Shabazz stupidities or Reeves Nelson chaos. UCLA Basketball is first and foremost the school of Coach and must try to live up to his standards for representing the four letters. Alford was to say the least a strange hire in this regard given what happen in Iowa with Pierce. Alford was at first defiant in his response to this question and then later apologized.
Alford has to realize that he may be in the land of the stars but he is first and foremost a teacher and a role model. Howland allegedly let Reeves Nelson go crazy off the court and Shabazz Muhammad not play defense on it because they both "produced." There are things more important than short term basketball production. Alford's history with Pierce makes this worrisome and his initial comments, years later, do not help. Would Alford still defend a bad person who was a "producing" player like Pierce? Or has he learned his lesson?
So far -1.
4. Not playing favorites.
Howland II had some strange rotations with guys like Nicola Dragovic never being benched. This seems easy for a new coach but this is the scariest one for Steve Alford personally I think. His comments on Bryce Alford have put the kid in a difficult situation. Implying that Kyle Anderson and Bryce are the only point guards on the team was not helpful to recruiting or, ironically, to Bryce. As a dad, I don't get it. He set his son up to be blamed if the team struggles at the point. Even if it works out short term, I know enough about the world of recruiting that every rival out there said something to the effect: "Don't go to UCLA if you are a point guard, the coach's son will be the point guard for the next four years."
So again he has not improved as of right now. -1
5. Playing the Defense to fit the Personnel.
Zone Defense was anathema to Ben Howland even when it seemed a necessary tool for success. It won't be to Steve Alford:
Another aspect that will be new is a zone defense. It was employed last year a little, but it's something they're practicing much more now than ever before.
"We've been really breaking it down spot by spot," said Travis Wear. "People think it's easy because you've just got to cover a couple different spots but you've got to cover a couple different guys, you've got to work on situational formations."
+1 for Alford. Not saying zone is the answer but a willingness to play it is a pleasant change.
6. Keeping Players
Players transferred out of Ben Howland's programs in droves. I know many will disagree with me but I will give Alford some credit for keeping Tony Parker from leaving. Parker seemed a homesickness victim as well as a Howland victim. Keeping him to me deserves some credit.
+1 for Alford
7. Beating Just SC
Howland's record against USC was rather pathetic. There is no excuse for UCLA not dominating USC in basketball.
So far Alford has failed to improve on that record having lost a key recruit to USC in Jordan McLaughlin. He also began by failing to understand the rivalry but is getting better:
"It's hard to say. I know that there's a rivalry," Alford said. "Obviously, you've got two Pac-12 schools that are in the same town. You understand that. Do I understand there's still a big difference in the basketball side of it? Yeah, I think there's still a big difference there."
Pressed on exactly what that was, Alford said: "If you just look at history, and you have the history and tradition - UCLA-USC, there's quite a bit of difference there."
Beat USC twice like a drum and then it will be an easy +1, right now it is a -1.
8. Use Kyle Anderson properly.
Howland started Kyle last year as a wing and then moved him to power forward. At one point he briefly played Center, meaning Kyle played all 5 positions last year. It will be up to Alford to maximize a truly unique talent who could be the first player since Bill Walton to lead UCLA in rebounds and assists. Kyle is on the Bob Cousy Award watch list.
Under Steve Alford, UCLA point forward Kyle Anderson said his ballhandling duties have increased "90 percent."
On Tuesday, he was named to the 46-man watch list for the Bob Cousy Award, given each year to the top point guard in college basketball. Anderson averaged 9.7 points, 8.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists as a freshman, and was the only Pac-12 player to rank top-10 in both the latter two categories.
At 6-foot-9, he would be the tallest winner since the award was established in 2004.
No thought here yet as it is too early.
9. Dominate LA in recruiting and be a major force out west.
Howland II was hated by local area AAU and High School coaches. They wanted nothing to do with UCLA while Howland was there and they told their players to stay away. It seems like just not being Howland would help with recruiting as players want to come to UCLA generically.
However, Alford has chased and is chasing national recruits and seemingly ignoring local recruits. According to this Scout list UCLA's top two current targets and four out of eight current targets are outside the PAC 12. Howland turned to this strategy with mixed results but in any case in part out of desperation. Alford was supposed to have inroads into the PAC 12 and California but so far he has failed to directly recruit anyone from California.
-1 so far
10. Playing Freshman and letting them be Freshman.
It is great that everyone is happy and getting along. But if there is one player that I am curious to how he will fit in and what role he will play it is Zach LaVine. Zach seems too good to keep on the bench but is certainly a raw freshman who literally just grew a lot. Howland's quick hook was tough on non-elite freshman from Russell Westbrook to more recently Norman Powell and Tony Parker. How Alford will develop LaVine and let, or not let, him play, will be very telling.
No grade so far.
So on the not being Ben Howland II scoreboard he is a minus two by my count. Good news for Alford is it is early and these scores are soft and will change. Bad news for Alford is "not being Howland II" is the easy task; being a UCLA level coach is much harder.