You've probably noticed that my concern level about the season has been rising dramatically -- I'm approaching DEFCON 1. I wrote the season previews knowing Adams, Bolden and Octeus would not be on the roster, and so it would be obvious that the Bruins were a big step down from first place in the PAC-12. Then second place appeared out of reach as I watched Utah before the conference with their new players in addition to returning last year's starters.
It got worse. The Bruins were thrashed by North Carolina, Kentucky and Utah. Perhaps worse is that the Bruins lost winnable games to Oklahoma, Alabama and Colorado. Colorado was missing their best player, Josh Scott.
That's just the record. The eye test is worse. Sadly, the expectations weren't high for the defense, but the vaunted offense disappeared after the cupcake (and cupcake plus) wins. Really, there is no offense: no transition, no inside-out and very poor perimeter shot selection. The Bryce Alford situation, 5-39 in the last three games, is so bad that the national media is all over it.
USC beat Berkeley last night, 72-57. Berkeley, without Jabari Bird, has now lost to the two worst teams in the PAC-12, Washington State and USC. After Arizona and Utah, and maybe Stanford, the conference is a mess. Can the Bruins make the NCAA Tournament with their miserable out-of-conference if they don't finish in at least third place in the conference?
The Bruins are in Los Angeles for the next three games. No more excuses, The Bruins MUST WIN the next three games.
This morning, Jack Wang hit all the points I wanted to make:
For all that UCLA head coach Steve Alford has said about youth, about tough scheduling, about not making excuses, nothing can change this simple fact. Just two games into Pac-12 play, the Bruins are at serious risk of missing the NCAA tournament for the third time in six years.
"You never know what it does to someone's psyche, but when we got smacked like Kentucky smacked us, that's not easy," Alford said. "I've been in games like that before. It's like a boxer that gets knocked out and says, ‘OK, I want to get back in the ring,' but they're still a little worried about getting hit."
That has produced a mess of a team, one that has not been able to shoot even 32 percent from the field in its last four outings.
While nearly no one has played well during that stretch, most egregious has been the performance of sophomore point guard Bryce Alford. After averaging 22.6 points and 44 percent from the field through the first 12 games, he has shot just 5 of 39 in his last three. But even as UCLA sinks into its offensive quagmire, Bryce said coaches have encouraged him to fire away.
Tony Parker knows what needs to happen going forward:
When asked about his team's March Madness resume, junior center Tony Parker said: "That's definitely in question. You have to win games to make the tournament."
We'll probably know after tonight if Steve Alford lost this team. The signs are there. The offense breaks down two plays after the beginning of the half or a timeout which means the players don't listen, and the coaches can't get them to focus. There seems to be a fear, as a player, that if I can't count on getting a pass, then I need to shoot when I get the ball. Bryce is in a special category: the point guard who doesn't need to get a pass because he always has the ball in his hands, and apparently has the green light with no repercussions.
I'm not going to absolve the coach of creating this mess through roster and on-court mismanagement, but I care about the players and UCLA, the institution. UCLA should be in the tournament -- and that's very modest expectation that is hard for me to write. Therefore, they MUST WIN the next three games.