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Part 1--Steve Alford the Bench Coach on Defense

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In the next two days I am going to do two posts on Steve Alford’s coaching. By coaching I mean bench coaching. I am not going to discuss the two other equal important areas of coaching at UCLA, recruiting and representing UCLA.

How do you play great defense with these three on the floor?
How do you play great defense with these three on the floor?
Harry How

So what kind of coach is Steve Alford? He beat arguably three of the four best coaches in the conference on the road in Colorado's Boyle, Oregon's Altman and UC Berkeley's Montgomery but he lost to arguably two of the four worst in Oregon State's Robinson and Stanford's Dawkins and also lost in Utah.

If you accept that you are supposed to win the games at home in the PAC 12 and split on the road, he is doing okay as well.  However, six times this season UCLA has been posed to make a statement only to lose the key game or the game after (Missouri, Duke, Arizona, Colorado-Utah, Oregon-Oregon State, UC Berkeley-Stanford).  As far as generic expectations for UCLA or even a good PAC 12 team you expect to win at least one if not two of those games.

On the other hand, unlike recent years with Lavin or Howland, UCLA has not only won but won easily for the most part over lesser teams.  I don't think it is fair to dismiss the complete and total destruction of Just SC in record tying fashion nor the fact that UCLA has properly destroyed bad teams a Pauley or UC Berkeley at Haas.  No more CSUN's or Cal Poly's pulling upsets.  On the flipside, a UCLA team should always be ranked in the top 25.  This team has crept in the top 25 multiple times only to fall out of by missing an opportunity.

So what does this mean?  Possibly a UCLA basketball fan's worst nightmare.  Look I am with UCLAluv in that I will always root for the players.  I truly enjoy watching Kyle Anderson play under Alford over Howland.  However, I am scared that the Alford era is going to be marked by not being great or even terrible but rather by mediocrity.  In the abstract it would be best if Alford was one or the other but the fact is he is not so far.

A great example of this mediocrity is the defensive design.

Why did UCLA split the three road trips in the fashion they did?  I think I have the answer, today I focus on the lesser of the two problems, defense.

Let's start with some sports saying on home court advantage.  It has often been said that role players play better at home.  Also home court can be a bigger advantage for bad coaches than better ones.

This in part explains why UCLA losses to lesser teams.  But the real reason is UCLA's defense is basically a gamble.  Last week was a great example of both sides of the gamble.

The gamble paid off against UC Berkeley.  On defense Alford took away Cobbs, Solomon, and Wallace who were a combined 8-26 and quite frankly Cobbs was worse than his numbers.  Norman Powell had one of his best games as a Bruin shutting down Cobbs.  On the other hand, UCLA let Matthews and Bird shoot and although those two had 30 points it did not hurt UCLA.  Bird's 12 points came on 1-7 from three.

The same gamble crapped out against Stanford.  A lot of commentators will say that UCLA fell flat against Stanford.  Others will say Norman Powell stunk on defense covering Chasson Randle.   Actually the game plan on defense worked perfectly just as it did against Berkeley, it was just the game did not play out the same way as the Berkeley game or the first game against Stanford.

Alford failed to recognize Chasson Randle is a Jekyll and Hyde player from three.  On the road he is ugly, at home is good.  At Pauley Randle was 3-16 including 1-6 from three. Many of those were open looks.  At Maples he was 8-13, including 7-10 from three.  UCLA let him shoot outside in both games and Randle did about what you expect.  From three Randle shoots 10 points (44% to 34%) better at home than on the road or in a neutral site.  UCLA gambled off Randle successfully at Pauley and disastrously at Maples.

In goes deeper though.  In the first game, the relatively easy UCLA win over Stanford, Stanford was led by Dwight Powell's 17 points.  In the second game UCLA tried to shutdown Dwight Powell and did, he had half as many points.  But this was in part because UCLA's best defender, Norman Powell was sagging and helping.  Norman was helping limit Dwight and daring Randle to shoot.  For that matter all UCLA players were.  Stanford shot 37% from three the first game and 55% the second.  But hey Dwight Powell did not beat us on offense on the inside.

That is the way for good and bad that UCLA's defense works.  Alford reasonably looked at the team and decided that we lack a strong inside presence.  Three of our four bigs have trouble even rebounding on defense and the team's very good rebounder is also the point guard, a top scorer, leading shot blocker, etc.  So how do compensate that our bigs are soft?  You sag.  You let some opposing players get a good look from three point land.

Further it makes sense for personnel reasons.  I think you always want to keep Kyle close to the basket, this is tough with two other bigs (two of the following David Wear, Travis Wear, or Tony Parker) in the game without sagging.  It makes some sense.  Further even when the preferred lineup (Norman, Zach LaVine, Jordan, Kyle and a Big) is in it still helps as arguably Jordan Adams is one of the team's better rebounders after Kyle.  As he is relatively short it is nice to have him near the basket.

The last bonus of packing it in is it also easy to steals as crafty players like Adams can jump the passing lanes, long players like Kyle can take advantage of their length and athletes like Powell can use their quickness.  All have been very good at getting steals against undisciplined teams.

An example of where this worked and failed was the Missouri game.  Missouri started the game 1-8 from three and UCLA led 30-18.  UCLA looked unbeatable as the offense was rolling with Lavine and Powell getting steals and dunks.  UCLA packed in defense was leading to turnovers and steals.  Then Missouri calmed down and went 7-11 from three to take a two point lead.  UCLA extended the defense and Missouri started destroying UCLA on the boards 28-15 for the second half and the Missouri rout was on.

In Alford's defense I think it is a sound strategy some of the time.  When we played Arizona with their bigs inside it makes sense as about the best way to give our bigs a shot inside.

But it is not a long term winning strategy used alone.  It is also the kind of strategy that leads to a lesser talented but disciplined team like Utah beating you in the conference or, more importantly a Harvard type in the tournament.

Utah game is a great example of the strategies flaws.  A player got a career high in that game for Utah, Kenneth Ogbe with 12 points, going 4-4.  UCLA let him shoot and he knocked them down.  At Pauley he was 2-4 with five points.  Utah shot 41% from three at home and 32% at Pauley.  Teams are going to shoot better from three at home.

In a sense Utah is the bad team that should have the best shot to beat UCLA's sagging defense.  They are a good home team and disciplined.  It makes sense that UCLA's sagging defense had problems against them.  Utah lack of athletes outside two players though begs the question why did we do it?

Now the third loss, Oregon State, UCLA took the strategy to the extreme in this one. Playing the whole game in a sagging zone.  UCLA made an effort to get out on one player and that worked.  The then leading conference scorer Roberto Nelson had a bad game shooting 2-8 from the field (Although he was 2-5 from three).  However, UCLA let freshman guard Hallice Cook shoot at will and, you guessed it, he had a career high 20 points and was 4-6 from three.  OSU was 44% from three for the game.

Much like the six missed opportunities I don't expect us to win every one of these.  One of these bad teams is going to get hot at home.  It is a flaw of this team that there is no one to protect the rim if the defense extends too much or all the time.  But again three conference losses to lesser teams, especially Oregon State were avoidable on the defensive side if Alford didn't stubbornly stick to a failing strategy against a lesser talented team.

Here are some thoughts for Alford on Defense.

1.  No coaching decision made me more mad they staying a zone the entire game against Oregon State.  One of the best things you can do against a bad coach is surprise them and change things up.  Oregon State figured out UCLA's sagging zone and UCLA never countered.  I don't care if it is the best strategy, in no case should it have been the only strategy.

2.  Unlike Lavin (no plan) or Howland (one plan), Alford has shown a willingness to change defenses during the game.  His throwing in the press is nice as well not because it makes a big difference for stops or steals but because it changes the pace and speeds up the game generally to UCLA's advantage.  Again, why he took that game away sticking to zone is a mystery.

3.  Going to point one, Bryce Alford playing hurts because UCLA virtually ALWAYS play zone when Bryce is in.  That defeats point two.  Look I understand Bryce can't cover most PAC 12 players but if that is the case he should be playing a lot less minutes or only playing when the other team has a player he can cover.  We are playing without a defensive option when he is on the floor, either hide him against the worst player or don't play him as much.  I think it is telling in the Utah game he played more than Norman Powell.

4.  Bruinette had a fascinating stat on Norman Powell on Randle against Stanford.  Randle scored on Norman but slaughtered everyone else even more.  I will say more tomorrow but I think the case Chrisorr started is over: the second best player on the team is Norman in part because he is the key the UCLA defense.  (Against Utah he only played 19 minutes and that undoubtedly helped Utah have a great game.)

5.  Alford can't stick to the sagging defense against teams we have a talent advantage on.  It equalizes things.  Remember that the terrible Just SC was beating UCLA in the first half as their best player Byron Wesley made four threes to give a truly terrible team a 41-35 half time.  Alford extended the defense after that and UCLA took over the game.  If Alford stayed in the sagging zone, Just SC might have won.

6.  UCLA has one advantage with the three relatively equal bigs, who cares about fouls!  I think Travis is the best of the three but David is his flipping identical twin.  You also have Tony Parker.  That is 15 fouls.  Who cares if they foul out?  They should be testing the SPTRs every game with aggressive play inside on the boards and defense.  I think Travis is doing this now and it is one of the reasons he is right now, overall, the best of the three.

This post is too long.  I will talk about what I think is the bigger problem in the losses tomorrow, the offense.  Alford is not a terrible coach on defense.  His strategy is rational given UCLA's inside issues.  However, if he is too stubborn sticking to even the best strategy exclusively when a change would help (see the Oregon State game) or gives a lesser team a chance to hang on by sagging, he is a mediocre coach. While it makes sense against a team that is a powerhouse inside, It is also a recipe for a disciplined lesser talented team to knock UCLA out in the NCAA tournament.

Also, in the comments please only comment on Alford's coaching of defense.  Other factors such as character and recruiting are as important, if not more, for a coach but today I want to hear people's thought on the defense.