As reported by Bruins Nation, UCLA basketball coach Steve Alford issued an open letter to the UCLA community yesterday in which he announced that he would be returning the one-year contract extension given to him by Dan Guerrero after he guided the Bruins to second place in the Pac-12 in his first season in charge of the program.
But the letter went further than that announcement. Among other things, Alford acknowledged the defensive deficiency of this year's team:
Over the course of my career, teams that I've led have owned, on average, a defensive rank in the top 50. This year we ranked outside the top 100. This can never happen again. We must return to the basics and instill defensive fundamentals in our young men from day one of permissible workouts.
As soon as I read Alford's claim that his teams had, on average, a defensive rank in the top 50 over the course of his coaching career, I was skeptical since it didn't match my memory of his teams at New Mexico and Iowa. Consequently, I decided to check the facts.
There are several ways to measure defensive performance. Since Steve Alford doesn't reference a specific metric in his letter, I've compiled available data for the three most widely accepted measures of team defensive effectiveness.
The first of these is defensive efficiency (or defensive rating) which measures the number of points allowed per 100 possessions. I have compiled defensive efficiency rankings from data available from the 1997-98 season onwards, covering all but the first two years of Alford's coaching career in Division 1.
The second measure is Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency which is similar to the first metric, but as the terminology suggests, has adjustments to account for the strength of the opposition. For this metric, data is available from the 2001-02 season, which corresponds to Alford's third season at Iowa.
The third metric used is points allowed per game. This metric does not account for pace of play or strength of opponent, and therefore should be considered the least accurate of these three measures in assessing defensive performance. Nevertheless, I've included it for two reasons. First, unlike the other two metrics, data is available for every season of Alford's coaching career. Second, as you will see in the table below, points allowed per game correlates fairly well with the other two metrics, so the corresponding ranking can be used as a rough gauge of how well Alford's teams fared with respect to the other rankings where data is unavailable for them.
In each instance in which one of Steve Alford's teams fell outside the top-50 in any of the rankings, I've highlighted the ranking in red. Also, at the bottom of the table, I've calculated an overall average rank for each of the metrics from the available data.
|Season||Team||Defensive Efficiency Rank||KenPom AdjD Rank||Points Allowed Per Game Rank|
|Overall Average Rank||91.4||57.4||130|
As you can see, whichever metric is used, Steve Alford's claim that "over the course of my career, teams that I've led have owned, on average, a defensive rank in the top 50" appears to be untrue. In fact, based on the available data and the statistics compiled, his claim appears to be a misrepresentation of his record.
Furthermore, note that having teams that finish in the top-50 in defensive ranking appears to be the exception rather than the rule in Alford's coaching career. In terms of defensive efficiency ranking, only 4 of 19 Alford-led teams were ranked in the top-50 nationally. In terms of points allowed per game ranking, it's even worse--only 4 of 21 teams coached by Alford were ranked in the top-50. Steve Alford fares better in Ken Pom's adjusted defensive ranking, but still a majority of his teams (8 out of 15) fall below the top-50.
Before going further, let's consider the possibility that unavailable data from early in Steve Alford's coaching career might dramatically change the overall defensive rank of either of the first two metrics. There are two reasons why this isn't plausible. First, in Alford's first six seasons, his teams generally ranked poorly in points allowed per game. Since that metric tracks well with the other defensive metrics, there's no reason to believe that his Missouri State teams or his first two Iowa teams were defensively strong. Second, because Alford's career average rank for both defensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency are so far from being top-50, his early teams would have had to be, on average, better than the top-ranked defensive team in the country to bring his career average into the top-50.
Simply put, based on the defensive statistics normally used to measure defensive performance, Alford seems to have prevaricated about his coaching record.
There's a final point that needs to be made with respect to Alford's credibility. In admitting that the defensive performance of the 2015-16 Bruins was unacceptable, he writes this:
This year we ranked outside the top 100. This can never happen again.
But if you take another look at the table, you will see that it has happened before. In terms of defensive efficiency rank, teams coached by Alford have ranked outside the top-100 seven times, including teams from the last two seasons. Using points allowed per game makes things even worse for Alford since 15 of his 21 Division 1 teams have been ranked outside the top-100 defensively. Once again, Ken Pom's adjusted defensive ranking is kinder to Alford, but his 2002-03 Iowa team ranked outside the top-100 defensively. In other words, even though Steve Alford insists that having a team that ranks outside the top-100 defensively "can never happen again," it has happened again.
Although I am dubious that Alford authored the letter, by signing it, he took responsibility for the content. Unless he or UCLA Athletics can provide justification for the claim that teams coached by Alford have, on average, had a defensive rank in the top-50, then it will be very hard not to conclude that Alford is trying desperately to save his job by misrepresenting his coaching record.
Note: Bruins Nation contacted the UCLA Athletic Department for clarification as to which stats were being used to support Steve Alford's claim. At the time of publication, the request had gone unanswered. This article will be updated if a response is received.