Earlier, I wrote the optimistic post for the UCLA basketball season. This time, I will write the pessimistic post. In neither of them am I making outrageous claims. It is just that Steve Alford has proven he is a “good basketball” coach. The key question has always been different to me. Is he a UCLA level basketball coach? That question is a completely different one. And, before some casual reader thinks I am biased against (or for) Alford, let me just put it in Pac-12 terms. Alford is a Pac-12 level coach and, say, Washington State would be happy to have him.
So far, however, Alford has not proven he is an elite Pac-12 coach. If or when Sean Miller is fired for his role and oversight (or lack thereof) in the FBI recruiting scandal, there is no way Arizona would take him, even if Alford was available (just like Indiana was not interested last year.)
This season, unburdened by coaching his son and with a team entirely of his making, Alford has a chance to show he is an elite coach. He could do that, in part, by finally winning the Pac-12 regular season title. That’s something only Alford and Larry Brown have failed to do in the post-Wooden era. Of course, Larry Brown also took UCLA to a final in his brief tenure while Alford has not been past the Sweet 16.
So, the following are issues and concerns that may lead to Alford proving once and for all he is not a UCLA level coach by this year’s team not reaching its potential.
10. If not with Lonzo....
Lonzo Ball was the best UCLA player this century and it was only good enough for a third place conference finish and a Sweet 16. Yes, Russell Westbrook is a better pro than Lonzo may ever be and Arron Afflalo went to two Final Fours as a top scorer/defender, but that does not change the fact Lonzo Ball was an amazing UCLA player who led UCLA’s best offense in years. And, the bottom line s that it was only a third place Pac-12 finish and a Sweet 16.
9. LaVar Ball
After the Sweet 16 loss LaVar Ball was at his worst. “Realistically you can’t win no championship with three white guys because the foot speed is too slow,” he said. Now keep in mind, this was not winning “a championship” with his son as the unquestioned star.
How will LaVar be If UCLA loses with LaVar’s son LiAngelo on the bench?
While the distraction of Bryce is gone, how will the “LaVar Show” play out if UCLA struggles during the season or if his son hardly plays?
8. Aaron Holiday
What if Aaron Holiday, while a good player, is not cut out to be a point? This is not a knock on Aaron directly. Just because you are (relatively) short, quick and good at going to the basket does not mean you have the vision to be a point. The pros want Holiday to prove he is a point, but he may be more of a two guard. And, related to that, it is one thing to be beat out by a once-in-a-generation kid like Lonzo Ball, but to be beat out by a freshman named Jaylen Hands at the point guard spot may cause problems.
Personally, I think there is a good chance of the latter with Hands being the better point. Last year, Holiday often played point with Lonzo in the game but Lonzo was always point in the crunch. This year, Holiday needs to be on the floor in the crunch but should he be point? If he is not, does that create problems?
7. Defensive effort
The worst offender Bryce may be gone, but, at times, Alford’s teams have been light on defensive effort. The talent will be here. Will Steve Alford’s Bruins play close to their defensive potential? If history is a guide, this is a real concern.
6. Just ‘SC
It is unacceptable to be beaten by Southern Cal in basketball. Southern Cal could care less about basketball and keeps the program around to have someone to put sanctions on when football gets in trouble. And, Southern Cal is in the midst of a basketball scandal, yet, until Lonzo Ball’s second game last year, UCLA had lost four in a row to them. This is a worry and unacceptable.
5. Who is the leader?
Alford’s three Sweet 16 teams had clear leaders and go to guys: Kyle Anderson in his first year, Norman Powell (NP4) in his second, and Lonzo Ball for Steve Alford last year. The third year UCLA had no leader and had a losing record. This year, there is no clear leader. This is not just an academic question but each team needs a leader. Kyle stepped up and did yeoman’s work on the boards. NP4 gave a memorable speech about playing defense that turned the season around. Lonzo by looking to always pass first changed the culture of the Bruins on offense. Who is going to be that on the court leader?
4. The Four (or Power Forward)
Generally, the key player in Steve Alford team is the four or power forward. Not the best, mind you. but Steve Alford’s teams put the four in unique spots. For example, the special zone 1-2-2- zone involves the four on top (although, it was Lonzo last year) and a stretch four who can handle the ball relatively well and hit a three. While TJ Leaf was ideal on offense, let’s not forget Kevon Looney was pretty amazing and Kyle Anderson was even a point four.
There are some good players at four but none seem to be a stretch four or a top of the 1-2-2 zone type. Remember: the year UCLA did not have a four was the year Alford had a losing record.
3. Coach Ed Schilling
Assistant Head Coach Schilling was the “skills and drills” guru for UCLA the last few years. When he left, Steve Alford promoted within and did not hire a new guru type.
How much of the notable shooting was due to Schilling? Was it the right move to not hire a similar replacement, misplaced loyalty to his coaching staff, or a smart move?
2. Platooning lineups
Some have suggested that UCLA will use platooning lineups. Realistically, this won’t happen and anyone who suggests it is fantasizing. Alford sets his lineups and it is done. The one year he was screwing around with lineups for reasons other than injuries was the year he had a losing record. But, it does flag a problem. Outside of Welsh and Wilkes, I would argue that no position is clear cut on who should start and get playing time. Even those who are a lock for big minutes (e.g. Aaron Holiday) are not a lock for a position. (Is Holiday going to be point or two guard?) This could lead to a talented team underachieving as they find their roles.
1. Other Conference Competition
Arizona and Southern Cal are in the midst of huge scandals that are going to impact their seasons, to some degree. If they falter (and Just SC may already be in trouble on the court), UCLA should win the Pac-12. However, Oregon’s Dana Altman, while having his own ethics issues around his program, has been the dominant coach.
Will an Altman out coach Alford with much less talent? That just is not acceptable. Alford has the talent and has already received a few breaks that should lead to a Pac-12 title.