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UCLA Basketball: Thanks and We’ve Been Here Before

This UCLA Team was more like 1991-92 than a Champion.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Kentucky vs UCLA
Thanks, Isaac, for all your hard work.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

This has been a fun year of writing news roundups, but let me start with a couple matters of personal privilege. First, as I wrote yesterday, if Alford lost last night, he was staying. The other stuff was BS. And, despite what others may say it is, it’s in part because Indiana does not want him.

Steve Alford is staying at UCLA, according to multiple reports. Amid speculation the UCLA coach would leave to fill alma mater Indiana’s opening, Alford dismissed the notion Friday night after the Bruins’ loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16.

He later told reporters that he was “100 percent committed” to UCLA, even going to far as to tell ESPN “I am not going to talk to Indiana.” But Alford wasn’t absolutely definitive at the podium following the game.

“I’m at UCLA,” Alford said. “I don’t know a lot of people that want to leave UCLA. This is a pretty special place.”

Why Alford waited until after UCLA’s loss to confirm the he isn’t leaving for Indiana is curious.

Again, it is because Indiana does not want him. Yes, there are those in Indiana interested in him. But Indiana’s AD is not as clueless as Guerrero and past UCLA AD’s. You don’t hire a great player from your past, you hire a great coach for your future. (Also, can UCLA have someone help Alford on working the press? Don’t we have a communication school?)

Next, I picked Kentucky is this game in my bracket. To be clear, I really wanted UCLA to win and thought we had a chance to do so. I just always thought the model for this team was going to be 1991-92, as I wrote here:

One of the duties of old guys like me is to keep things in perspective. One of my duties here is to be a bit of a historian. So, while a lot of people want to compare this team to Jim Harrick's 1994-95 National Championship team (and I certainly hope so), a model may be another Harrick team, the 1991-92 Bruins. Check out this paragraph from Wikipedia:

Jim Harrick coached his fourth year for the Bruins. The Bruins started the season ranked 11th in the AP Poll and beat the #2 Indiana Hoosiers, 87-72, in their season opener at the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic (Springfield, MA). This UCLA squad won their first 14 games, which was their best start since John Wooden's 1972-73 team. For the first time since the 1986-87 season, the Bruins were Pac-10 conference champions with a 16-2 conference record (there was no Pac-10 tournament that year). The Bruins were given a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament that year, but lost to Indiana in the Elite Eight, 79-106. UCLA finished ranked 3rd and 4th in the UPI and AP Polls respectively.

Alford is in his fourth year and so was Harrick. UCLA started ranked in the top 20 (11 v.13). UCLA started undefeated (14-0 v. 13-0 so far). UCLA convincingly beat a top team away from home, (#2 Indiana v. #1 Kentucky). Both were offense-first teams.

The finish, though, was not that pleasant in 1991-92. UCLA played that same Indiana team in the Elite 8 and was destroyed in the worst tournament loss in UCLA history.

This was not the worst loss in UCLA tournament history or anything close. Ball seemed to be limping at the end of the game, too. But any way you look at it, a Kentucky team we beat early in the season beat us in the tournament when it counted.

The rest of the news is now on players leaving or staying. First, there are those criticizing Ball leaving. One of the few nice things about the season ending early is not having to read Plaschke’s clickbait anymore, who predictably goes after a 19 year old for not being media savvy.

He’s gone to the NBA. He’s so gone, in fact, that he even announced it in the UCLA locker room while some of his teammates were sobbing around him. Even in this awkward age of the one-and-dones, it was a strikingly unfeeling moment, as poorly timed as his father LaVar’s recent public braggadocio.

“This is my final game at UCLA, I appreciate all the fans,” said Ball as if reading from a script.

When asked whether it was disappointing to end his brief career like this, he quickly answered, “This is not a disappointment. This was a good year. Tonight I didn’t make enough plays for my team, and that’s on me.”

Ball did not have a good game, but Ball had a great season. He never said he was staying two years (and he should not). Thanks, Lonzo, for doing your part.

The rest of the team is interesting. I am of the personal belief that TJ Leaf is torn on whether to go or not. I think he legitimately has not decided. The interesting thing for Leaf if he stays is this will be his team next year. As Ben Bolch writes:

Now the Bruins must ponder a future that could include a complete transformation of their roster. Leaf could join Ball in the NBA after one college season because he’s widely projected as a potential lottery selection. Welsh, Holiday and Ike Anigbogu also have decisions to make about their futures. Leaf, Welsh and Holiday said they had not made up their minds whether they would declare for the NBA draft or return to UCLA.

“I still have to go talk to my family about it,” Leaf said. “I know I love this place with everything in me.”

The other two that are gone are Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford. Here is what they said after the game:

Bryce Alford: I don't know, it kind of sinks in pretty quick, I think, knowing that you just lost a game in the NCAA Tournament. Yeah, it's very emotional. I've been with him for four years, played for my dad for four years, so it's been a great four years. Can't really complain about anything. Being a senior, in four years, having three Sweet 16s, it's just been a blast to play at UCLA. I don't know if it's sunk in yet, but it's definitely emotional.

Isaac Hamilton: Yeah, same thing, piggy-backing on what Bryce said, real emotion. I'm just blessed to play under Coach Alford. And the whole idea of me coming in and my three years playing, it's been a blast. It's been a lot of ups and downs, but couldn't ask for a better coach and coaching staff.

I am glad the kids like Steve Alford. As a fan, though, this is the quote that sticks out:

Steve Alford fell to 0-4 in regional semifinal games, including three losses with UCLA. His Bruins also dropped to 1-1 against Kentucky this season after having beaten the Wildcats by five points in December at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.

Thanks Lonzo, Bryce, and Isaac.