Sitting here eating my humble pie after predicting that the Stanford and Utah games were lock "losses" I thought I would throw down some thoughts on basketball from the big picture. Not about what is going on today but what the last three games mean for UCLA Basketball under Steve Alford.
The Big Dance
We are now 63% likely to go to the NCAA Tornament. Meh. You may say, wait a minute how can you not be excited about that??! Well, before the season did you think that was in doubt? We have the second most talent in the PAC 12. Going to the tournament should be expected. It should always be expected for a UCLA team and this particular UCLA team is no exception.
Yes the path is possibly unique (overcoming a 7 point half in a game to the likely #1 seed) but come on, making the tournament should not be a big deal in the big picture.
Not a Bryce Alford Hater
Thursday's game was significant for an obscure statistical reason, Norman Powell passed Bryce on shot attempts for the season. Norman now has 293 to Bryce's 291. Before Norman took over last game, Bryce had led since I think the Long Beach State game. This begs a few uncomfortable questions about Steve Alford's use of his son Bryce:
- How many teams give that many shots to their worst shooter by percentage of their starters? Bryce's 38.1% is last on the team.
- How many teams call so many plays for their worst shooter and none for their sure fire NBA first round pick Kevon Looney?
- How many teams have their poor shooting point guard lead them or virtually lead them in shot attempts for most of the season?
- How many teams have their worst shooter by percentage and worst defender lead them in minutes played?
Obviously worst defender is subjective but if anyone can make the case differently in the comments I would be surprised. My point is Steve Alford's use of Bryce is at a minimum questionable.
To be clear I think Bryce is a PAC 12 level guard and the fifth best player on this team right now. I also think when he is shooting too much, driving to nowhere too often, shooting too quick, or not putting out effort on Defense, the team is better with Noah Allen on the floor.
I don't think that makes me a Bryce Alford hater but rather a UCLA fan.
What Steve Alford has Changed
For the first time all year, Steve started regularly taking Bryce off the ball in the last few games. I think the Bryce point guard experiment was a necessary one given this team's make up but the season has shown there are better options. Further Steve to his credit chewed out Bryce a few times recently for bad shots.
Most importantly though is the below.
The key change in the team is when it was made into Norman's team. Make no mistake Norman helped make this happen as well when he gave the speech on defense after the Oregon debacle where UCLA let Oregon shoot as if they were playing H-O-R-S-E, according to Norman.
Steve also gets credit or maybe blame for waiting so long to turn the team over to Norman. Norman is the guy on the team you most want taking bad shots. To be clear, you don't want anyone to take a bad shot but Norman is the guy at the end of the shot clock whose hands you want the ball in and the guy most likely to create something from nothing. Lastly when Norman drives people come to help on him making it easier to offensive rebound.
The Stealth Player
While it is easy to blame the let down yesterday on SPTR or Bryce, another possibility is Tony being out. As Steve said:
"We are healthy. Hopefully we are gaining some momentum and getting some more confidence. I think that winning two games in a row at home after having lost five and winning at USC and leading that entire game gave us a lot of momentum. Then he [Tony Parker] got injured, and that's taking a big piece of us. He is one of only two upperclassmen on this team, and he is our starting center. We had to go up without him to the Oregon schools and we took a couple of steps back. He got back healthy and we have been able to win three more in a row. That's what I told him in the locker room. I told him, ‘That is how important you are to us.' We've won the last six games in which he's suited up. This one was huge and it sets up Saturday."
If you are a Steve Alford defender you can point to this. We said before the season the bench was weak and the margin of error was small. If we had Parker for all games we would be 8-2 in the PAC 12 and in second place an Alford defender will argue. Reality is, of course, we also lost to a bad Colorado team and a mediocre (9th place in SEC) Alabama team. It seems a stretch to say we win both considering they weren't close but it is credible.
I also think that right now, next year this is Tony Parker's team.
The Season Isn't Over Even When Its Over
Whether or not UCLA makes the NCAA tourney or not the season is not over for Steve. He desperately needs some more recruits, especially a three and four. Right now the team's best player, Senior Norman Powell, and the team's best prospect Freshman Kevon Looney are locks to be picking up paychecks next year. UCLA has two guards incoming in its freshman class which means no one on the roster plays three with possibly Bolden and GG to play the four. Bolden is a bit of a wildcard but no one is saying he is on the level of Kevon Looney.
UCLA recruiting class could be good with just one player added in top target Jaylen Brown. UCLA desperately needs Brown. Brown would help fill the athleticism void left by Looney and Powell.
If they don't get Brown, they need to get two more good players starting out with a three such as Brandom Ingram. Keep in mind in losing Powell and Looney, UCLA loses its two best athletes as well. An elite player like Stephen Zimmerman (family ties to UCLA) or Ivan Rabb would be almost necessary without Brown.
If Steve gets this team to the tournament but fails to recruit, there is a real possibility of UCLA getting worse every year under Steve.
UCLA under Alford has been led by Ben Howland players both Alford seasons. Kyle Anderson last year and now Norman Powell. To Steve's credit he set both these Howland trained players free by letting Kyle play point most of the time and letting Powell attack the basket. However, so far the Alford recruits have arguably under achieved (Hamilton and Welsh do not look like five stars and Looney has been underutilized). While it is nice this year the team may make the tournament that in and of itself is not a cause for celebration as it was expected before the season. Most unfortunately, Steve's use of his son continues to raise uncomfortable questions.
So yeah, it's nice we are 63% likely to make the tournament right now with only one tough game left. But celebrations for a tournament appearance are like what UC Berkeley did for beating Southern Cal and many concerns remain.