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Sean Miller Takes A Shot; Alford Rejects It

On Monday, Sean Miller indirectly questioned the wisdom of recruits choosing UCLA's basketball program. On Tuesday, Steve Alford fired back.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Following the Wildcats' 90-60 victory over mighty Bradley on Monday, Sean Miller's press conference took a weird turn. Eight minutes into his postgame presser, in the middle of talking about his players and his team's performance, Miller inserted a recruiting pitch that began with a shot at UCLA. According to Ezra Amacher, this is what Miller had to say:

If you want to hear the remarks for yourself, go to the 8:50 mark of the press conference video:

As Gary Parrish at CBS Sports points out, there's no doubt that Miller was talking about UCLA:

Because Miller said he was watching games in empty arenas Sunday night, then you know he had to be talking about a school that played in an empty arena Sunday night -- like UCLA. And the "lot of traffic" comment ensures he was talking about UCLA...

If you're wondering, UCLA played Cal Poly on Sunday night at Pauley Pavilion. Pauley Pavilion holds 13,800. The announced attendance was 6,595. Meantime, Arizona got 14,238 for Monday's win over Bradley.

It seems like Sean Miller is having trouble moving on after the summer breakup between T.J. Leaf and Arizona. Leaf committed to UCLA last week after decommitting from Sean Miller's program in August.

Let me highlight one sentence from Miller's press conference attack ad:

"As a young kid, why would you ever want to come to a program or a place where nobody comes to the game?"

It's been shown that negative ads work in politics, but what about in the world of recruiting? I don't know the answer, but when you're trying to sell a "young kid" on a place known for cactus and shuffleboard, maybe taking shots at your competitors is the best option.

In any case, Miller's rhetorical question must have been on Steve Alford's mind on Tuesday. He began his midweek pre-practice press conference by talking about UCLA's strong 2016 recruiting class featuring T.J. Leaf, Lonzo Ball, Kobe Paras, and Ike Anigbogu. It's a well-balanced group that Alford describes this way:

"We get a big guard, we get a versatile guard, we get a versatile big that can play guard/forward, and Ike is a true center. We met all of our needs in the '16 Class. All California guys..."

But at that point, Alford decided to take a detour by responding indirectly to Sean Miller's question:

"Today somebody was asking me...why come to UCLA? ... When you're in the second largest market in the country, and you're in an academic institution that is top-10 in the world, the most applied to university in the world, those are special things. Then you add our tradition here of 112 national titles--most in the country--11 in basketball--most in basketball. You almost have to find a reason why not to come here. It's a culture of excellence..."

But Alford wasn't finished with his recruiting pitch. Although Alford has been at UCLA for over two years now, he apparently wants to be sure that everyone knows that he's not Ben Howland (emphasis added):

"Now that we've been here two years, I think now these young players are seeing how we let them play. We don't handcuff them, we don't micromanage, we give them the freedom to play through the teaching and fundamentals of what we're trying to do."

That sounds good, of course, but I'd prefer to see a greater emphasis on the second half of that equation--"teaching and fundamentals"--and less emphasis on "freedom to play," especially in light of extremely disappointing performances this season, the inconsistency of last year's team, and the defensive mediocrity (at best) of all of Alford's UCLA teams.

When asked about his program's emphasis on recruiting in Southern California, Alford talked about building momentum in recruiting in the area, and how bringing in key targets like Isaac Hamilton, Thomas Welsh, and Aaron Holiday has helped secure some of the best local players in 2016 and 2017. Alford notes that the talent pool in Southern California has been improving in recent years and he states that his staff has been able to bring in the four players that they targeted for 2016.

Alford also confirms that he will take Bryce off scholarship next season if there are no unexpected departures from the program. For what it's worth, Tony Parker is the only senior on this year's team.

Eventually the topic turns to UCLA's first two games: Monmouth and Cal Poly. Alford first talks about how turnovers hurt the Bruins against Monmouth:

"We turned the ball over too much. 23 turnovers is just not who we are. That's not who we've been over the last two years. So it's very uncharacteristic. It's what you're always afraid of in openers as a coach."

However, he thought the Bruins showed vast improvement in taking care of the ball in their outing against Cal Poly:

What I was really pleased with is I thought we played a really good, scrappy Cal Poly team that could really shoot the basketball. And we found a way to win and we didn't turn the ball over. I think we only had 11 turnovers. So we go from 23 to 11. That's a learning process...

We've got to control the ball... We can score in a lot of ways, but if we're turning [the ball] over, that then impacts our defense.

While it's true that the Bruins have been hurt by turnovers, the Bruins' transition defense has been horrible. To his credit, Steve Alford acknowledges his team's defensive deficiencies, but he also blames his "new players" for poor shot selection.

We've got a long way to go defensively. But I think that turning the ball over and shots that we may be taking with new guys trying to get involved that's affecting our defense. I think eventually our defense will settle down. It's got to because it's nowhere near where we've got to have it. But I thought we saw some improvement in the Cal Poly game.

In fact, if Alford reviews the tape from both games, he'll see that it wasn't just his "new players" who exercised poor judgment in shot selection. I'm also not convinced that the Bruins played significantly better defensively against Cal Poly than they did against Monmouth, but I agree with his assessment that the Bruins have "a long way to go defensively" (emphasis added).

With respect to UCLA's next opponent--Pepperdine--Alford notes that the tallest player likely to be on the court for the Waves is 6'8", which means that potentially the Bruins will have another opportunity to find a solution to the problems in transition defense caused by using Parker and Welsh together. Again, to his credit, Alford acknowledges that while his big-big lineup has been potent on the offensive end, it's the source of some of the Bruins' problems on the defensive end.

Steve Alford then gets the opportunity to talk about the progress of freshman Aaron Holiday from Monmouth to Cal Poly. Based on Alford's comments, it's clear that Holiday is a hard worker and a quick learner, and that he understands that taking care of the ball needs to be his first priority on offense.

When asked about the improvement in Thomas Welsh's shooting, Alford is quick to credit Welsh's experience with USA Basketball over the summer and the confidence that Welsh has developed as a result. He also mentions Welsh's tremendous work ethic and his effort to get Welsh to play more aggressively. Alford says that the next step in Welsh's development is "getting him into the low post."

Finally, Alford praises Jonah Bolden for his debut performance, describing his contribution as "outstanding." He's pleased with Bolden's conditioning, effort, and his attention to detail. Alford admits that Bolden is being asked to learn and play multiple positions, which obviously places an additional burden on Bolden. Alford indicates that he's satisfied with Bolden's progress in that regard, but the reason for not keeping things simple for Bolden isn't addressed.

Video of Steve Alford's press conference is provided courtesy of UCLA Athletics.

Three players--Isaac Hamilton, Tony Parker, and Prince Ali--were also made available to the media. Isaac is up first, and he talks about the responsibility of the guards to take care of the ball, take advantage of mismatches inside, and play inside-out. He also talks about the need to stop the ball in transition defense.

Tony Parker is up next. It goes without saying that the Parker interview is the highlight of the video.

After admitting that he's been taking advantage of attention focused on Welsh to "sneak in there to take some of [Welsh's] rebounds...real smooth-like," Parker is asked about the improvement in Welsh's baseline shot:

"Oh, it's not an improvement. Trust me, he's had that since he stepped on the court. That's just his thing. Everybody on the team knows it. That's his shot, he's going to shoot it. We know it. He stands there, he's just waits, he's patient with it. That's his thing. I've never seen anything really like it, somebody who loves that shot. Tom loves that shot. That is his shot. And it's been like that since he's been here."

Tony is then asked this: "Is it a tough shot to block because his release point looks pretty high when he shoots it? And here's Tony's response:

"Yeah, his release point's high. He has a long head, so when he gets it over his long head, it's hard to reach it. You've got to be there on the catch to get it, so it's a tough shot to block."

Parker also manages to find a way to mention the Kansas City Royals again, saying

"I've been waiting since '85 for this. I was born in '93 but ... it sounds better."

Thanks, Tony!

Prince Ali is the final player interviewed, and his session is very brief. He talks about working his way back from injury, and seems to be patient and philosophical about earning a bigger role in the rotation.  When asked about what he needs to work on most, Ali admits that he needs to cut down on careless mistakes. He stresses the importance of film study and improving his concentration to identify and eliminate mistakes.

I'm looking forward to seeing more from Ali--he strikes me as a thoughtful, serious, hard-working student-athlete.

Once again, video of the player interviews is provided courtesy of UCLA Athletics.