The Sweet 16 game against Kentucky Friday is by far the most important game of Steve Alford’s coaching career. It is Steve Alford’s chance to meet expectations and prove he is a high major basketball coach. Why? Some reasons:
- Steve Alford has one of the best teams in the country and needs to take them on a deep run.
- This team has literally proven it can beat this Kentucky team with its 97-92 win at Rupp earlier this season. As a coach, it is up to him to prove he has improved his team enough to beat Kentucky again. If Kentucky wins, they will have proven that either they have improved more after being beat by this UCLA team or that he got out-coached by John Calipari.
- Steve Alford has never won a sweet 16 game. If he does not this year, will he ever be able to?
- Steve Alford has Lonzo Ball. Lonzo is the best player in the country and the best UCLA player this century.
There are excuses but they are either Steve Alford’s problems to deal with like the Indiana rumors or part of playing in March like the fact that Lonzo Ball is playing with tape on his hand and, I would bet, a nasty bruise on his hip and the fact that our best athlete, Ike Anigbogu, is playing on a bum foot. I have been told he limped out of the arena after the game.
Is Steve up to the task? Let’s talk briefly about the last time in Memphis, against Florida three seasons ago. That game was very close until Steve Alford benched that team’s star, Kyle Anderson, for too long and Florida pulled away. When Kyle came back, the game was out of reach. Kyle was benched to rest, which he needed, but the rest lasted too long and the backup point guard could not run the team anywhere close to as well and the team was without its best defensive rebounder when Kyle Anderson was out. The backup point guard was, of course, Bryce Alford.
That said, Alford has seemingly learned his lesson on this front. If anything, Lonzo plays too many minutes and played the entire second half against Cincinnati. I feel confident Steve will not make the mistake of the two Sweet 16s ago and bench the star too long.
Bryce is a subject that generates too many comments and that too much ink has been spilled about him. I guess I will look back to the last time UCLA played Cincinnati in a round of 32 game which was way back in 2002 under Steve “Sweet 16” Lavin.
Regardless of what you think of Alford, he is better than Lavin. Nestor and I attended the #8 UCLA v. #1 Cincinnati game together. It was a bit surreal. There was no doubt UCLA was the more-talented, yet worse-coached team. This despite the facts that UCLA was an 8 seed and Cincinnati was a 1 seed.
There is no better example of this than the play of Rico Hines. Rico was a guy who had no business playing for UCLA. He was not a good defender, scorer, or rebounder. He was not on the Pac-12 level. He was recruited because he was the teammate of a better high school player UCLA was after. He was playing because he was the latest Steve Lavin good luck charm, like Sean Farnham.
A key to that Cincinnati game was the injury to Hines. Lavin could not play Hines and was forced to play better players more minutes when Hines hurt his ankle early. In a double OT game, this mattered.
Steve Alford for his part saw that Bryce was struggling against Cincinnati and went to Aaron Holiday in the first half early. Bryce is a negative on defense and in a grind out first half, Aaron came in and made two steals doubling down in the post. In the game before, Steve Alford subbed out Bryce on defense late in the game.
While a case can be made that Alford favoring Bryce hurt in 2014, it seems less likely in Sunday’s game.
Maybe that brings us to a key player to watch: Aaron Holiday. Just like when Alford subs in Ike Anigbogu for Thomas Welsh, there are situations where Aaron Holiday is a better player than Isaac Hamilton or Bryce Alford. Aaron has played very well in the tournament and, more importantly, he has played under control which is usually his biggest flaw as a player. While stats don’t necessarily show control, it is very encouraging that Aaron has 16 assists to only 2 turnovers in his two tournament games.
Aaron also had 13 points in only 20 minutes against Kentucky earlier this year at Rupp. In that game Aaron carried us briefly in the first half when Kentucky seemed to be confused that a backup could be this good.
As a coach, one key for Steve Alford may be how and for whom to use Aaron Holiday.
However the bottom line is the Kentucky game is the perfect, if incomplete, test for Alford. Is he a UCLA level coach or, like Steve Lavin, is he just another “Steve 16” guy? A coach who can’t get further than his outsized talent takes him.
Alford needs to win.
To be clear this team is good enough to win it all and Friday is the first real test.