Steve Alford is now in his third year as UCLA Basketball coach. So it is time to ask: "Is the Program where it should be?" Bruins Nation lays at its expectations for this season.
"Two Sweet 16s!" his supporters will shout. "Kentucky and Utah debacles!" his opponents will follow up though gritted teeth.
However, regardless of how you feel about the past two seasons, one thing is true: the stars were Ben Howland players. From the six future pros on the 2013-14 Bruins to the Norman Powell-led "lucky to make the tournament" 2014-15 Bruins, the leaders have been Howland players.
Furthermore the two best "Alford" players, Zach LaVine and Kevon Looney, were both underutilized in their sole seasons at UCLA.
While Tony Parker is the last holdover from the Howland era, this is the "most Alford" of any of his UCLA teams. The program is now Alford’s for better or worse. Can he deliver? What is reasonable to expect him to do?
History of UCLA Coaches Post-Wooden
Since John Wooden retired, the five UCLA Basketball coaches who made it to their third season finished on average second place in the conference. Every coach but Larry Farmer made the NCAA Tournament. Farmer finished fourth and resigned after the season.
We consider it non-debatable that UCLA needs to make the tournament this season. Barring major injuries to multiple players, anything else is a dismal failure for Steve Alford in his third season. We understand it is now the Pac-12 instead of a Pac-8 or Pac-10 and that more teams make it more competitive. That said the media predicted finish of fifth for UCLA is very troubling. Alford took over a program in turmoil (Reeves Nelson and Sports Illustrated, Shabazz Muhammad and the NCAA Infractions Committee, Josh Smith and pizza, etc.) but not a failing program. UCLA had just won the conference. Alford and the Athletic Department like to tout the two Sweet 16s. The other side of this is there is no excuse for getting worse as the Alford era continues. UCLA has the name and relative recent success that, at this point, it should be talked about as a possible conference champion and not predicted to barely finish in the top half of conference.
UCLA also has a major schedule break this year. UCLA misses the toughest road trip of the year (playing at altitude against Utah and Colorado) and only plays a loaded UC Berkeley team once.
Given history, the Pac-12 scheduling break and everything else, we think UCLA should compete for the Pac-12 title and finish no lower than third.
Representing the Four Letters
Of course, UCLA coaches are not just measured by winning and losing. Alford got off to a very rocky start. Part of this is not his fault. A person would be a fool not to accept when an Athletic Director offers you an outrageous guaranteed contract and then hands you an extension. However, since Alford is paid like one of the most elite coaches, it is not unreasonable to expect him to win like one.
Further, Alford has improved in understanding that, while Bobby Knight was a successful coach, John Wooden was the greatest Coach of all time. Alford now regularly talks about Wooden and has done a nice job with things such as Dribble for the Cure.
That said, there are still concerns about Alford. While there can be debate about the merits of the recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, it bears watching. While we love UCLA basketball, we love UCLA as a university more and take academics seriously. Steve Alford must as well.
The biggest concern though may be the oldest one in coaching, nepotism. No article about expectations can be complete without discussing the elephant in the room, Bryce Alford.
Actually, Bryce is not the issue. It is Steve Alford’s use of Bryce that is the issue. Bryce is a UCLA-level player. He is not a Pac-12 level point guard. There is no excuse this year. Steve can let Bryce pad his stats against the easier non-conference opponents or he can start to develop and give Aaron Holiday a chance at point guard. Everyone knows Bryce is not a Pac-12 Point Guard; Aaron could be and needs to be given the chance.
Second, the signs are strong this year that this is going to be "Bryce’s team." Last year, Bryce led UCLA in minutes. This was understandable in that UCLA did not have any guard depth and Bryce, unlike Norman Powell (NP4) and Isaac Hamilton, was rarely in foul trouble. (Critics will cite this as another example of Bryce’s lack of effort on defense.) However, for much of the season Bryce, not NP4, was the number one option on offense. This was inexcusable and the change to NP4 later in the year as the first option is one of the things that led to UCLA going to the Sweet 16.
The additions of Prince Ali and Aaron Holiday, coupled with the return of Isaac Hamilton, gives UCLA legitimate options at guard. Bryce needs to play less at point, be benched for bad shots, and improve on defense. The latter is the most interesting. Hamilton was named UCLA best defense player last year in the team awards. Ali and Holiday are both much better athletes and potentially better defenders than Bryce. If this is true and Bryce does not significantly improve in effort and play on defense, there may be times when Bryce should be benched.
This is UCLA Basketball and not "Alford and Sons." A fifth place finish in a coach’s third year with his son leading the team in shot attempts and minutes will raise eyebrows and erase any good feeling of the Sweet 16s. It should lead to a coach’s seat being hot if not worse.
No one should question these expectations as harsh or unreasonable. According to USA Today, Alford is the 14th highest paid coach (one of only two in the Pac-12 in the top 25). Compared to the history of past UCLA coaches Post-Wooden, finishing in the top 3 in the Pac-12 and making the NCAA tournament is not only reasonable but maybe too easy. Alford needs to do it.