Is it bandwagon time for UCLA fans? Is it time for all UCLA fans to stop "hating" Steve Alford? Are all these fans hypocrites for wanting Alford fired last year? All I can do is provide you my answer. I think he is doing a good job SO FAR this year but I still think he should have been fired after last year.
First off, I am not one of those never happy UCLA fans or fair weather fans. I loved watching Kyle Anderson set free from the restrictions of Ben Howland as a power forward point. I reveled in watching the reserved Norman Powell turn into the stud leader on and off the court during Alford's second year. Before that, for the last six years, I have been the lead or one of the lead writers on Bruins Nation basketball. Despite living on the East Coast, I have watched at least one game in person for every season for over the last 30 years and have missed only a handful of games on TV. This included spending time in odd sport bars as the guy watching the games very late at night with drunken idiots. (I love watching online now with my BN brethren.)
This is a long-winded way of saying I bleed blue and gold. I only want the best for UCLA.
Which brings me to Steve Alford.
SO FAR SO GOOD, ACTUALLY GREAT
It has been a joy to watch UCLA basketball this season. Lonzo Ball is one of the most "selfless" leaders I have ever seen. TJ Leaf may be the best "second best" freshman in UCLA Basketball History. Also, it has been great to watch Steve Alford keep arguably the third best player, Aaron Holiday, happy coming off the bench and using a four-guard lineup.
But it is more than that. Alford has made the right coaching moves and has UCLA playing selfless basketball. The offense is so good because everyone accepts their roles. While the most obvious is Aaron Holiday off the bench, Bryce off the ball is not inconsequential. Bryce has had no issues adjusting to being a two guard. Moreover, Steve Alford has regularly adjusted at half time to fix first half issues. More often than not, these adjustments have come on the defensive side.
The culmination of these efforts was the road win at Rupp Arena over #1 Kentucky. Unlike last year, when we faced a Kentucky team that was banged up, this is a truly elite Kentucky team. Convincingly winning at Rupp with a game that started at 9:30 a.m. is one of the best UCLA regular season non-conference true road wins ever.
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.
My point? We've been here before. We should all enjoy UCLA season and there is reason for optimism. However, what if Steve Alford fails to win the Pac-12? What if we get blown out in the tournament in the sweet 16?
Maybe we should all wait a bit before, we do a Dan Guerrero and give Steve Alford a contract extension again.
Does it matter that we had a great regular season win over Kentucky if we end the year on a less than stellar note? In all honesty, one of my biggest problems with the always-supporter-the-coach crew is how the many disasters of his second season were overlooked because of the "lucky" sweet 16 finish. This led to the even worse third season.
So, yes, I am cautiously optimistic and hopeful of a "great" season but I am not willing to declare a season great in December.
Ah, Yeah, The Plane Banner Guy Had A Strong Case
The Kentucky game was beautiful to watch. We played at such a high level and beat a group of great individual players. It was a joy to watch. There was only one head-shaking moment to me in the game which I did not mention for fear of being the guy complaining about the equivalent of the kicker missing the last extra point in a blowout.
At the end of the game, Kentucky was frantically fouling and trying to get back in the game. UCLA was offense-defense subbing Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday. Take a step back and think on this. Welsh makes sense. We needed Welsh for his inside presence on defense and to take him out in favor of another ball handler on offense. That's fine. But Holiday?
Let me put this another way, most people agree that Aaron Holiday is UCLA's best defender. All agree that Bryce Alford is our worst defender. Why not offense-defense sub Bryce Alford and Thomas Welsh?
The "haters" wrongly went crazy on Bryce missing some free throws but even the blindest member of the coach-is-always-right-crew has to admit that Aaron Holiday is an infinitely better defender than Bryce.
Of course, it didn't matter in the Kentucky game. But the thing is, it has mattered for the last three years.
This year has shown what people like me have said from the start, Bryce is not a point guard. UCLA basketball has been a thing of beauty this year with Lonzo as a point guard. It looks good in stretches with Aaron. Bryce was good at not turning the ball over but that does not make one a point guard. And the evidence is overwhelming it hurt Bryce's game as shown by the increases in his shooting percentages. Steve Alford's forcing Bryce to play point has been a problem for UCLA for years.
I was at the UCLA v. Florida NCAA tournament game where the game slipped away as Kyle Anderson sat on the bench and freshman Bryce ran the point. I watched the season as Bryce was favored over a now current pro point guard Zach LaVine.
The next season I watched Steve Alford criminally fail to recruit a point guard. Forget my opinions on Bryce. Why would any major college coach ever think Isaac Hamilton could be a backup point guard? Isaac is a crafty scorer and good passer, but has a shaky handle which makes him a poor choice to be a point in any situation. Alford's failure to recruit even an "emergency" point guard bordered on professional malpractice. Was it done to ensure Bryce had no competition?
The next year, a raw lead guard with point guard potential was added. However, keep in mind before the season, UCLA envisioned to have Prince Ali, not Aaron Holiday, starting. Holiday wowed everyone with his effort and intensity but the Holiday point guard experiment did not last long and Bryce was again point.
Worse last year was the horrid defensive effort at times. Again, even the coach-is-always-right-crew understands that Bryce was the worst defender. Personally, I rarely saw Bryce even put out effort on D. Yet, while goofy ideas like playing two slow-foot centers together was tried, Bryce was never called out or benched for his defense. Bryce has always been treated differently and it has hurt UCLA.
It was almost as if, last year, Steve wanted it to be Bryce's team. Keep in mind before last season in the Pac-12 media interview, Steve took the junior Bryce over the highly quotable and funny senior Tony Parker. This is because, generally, Steve has taken the team's best player. In his first year, it was sophomore Kyle Anderson (season MVP), then senior Norman Powell (season MVP) and then Bryce.
By Steve Alford's design, it was Bryce's team and, to put it mildly, it stunk. UCLA lost three times to "Just SC" including to end the abomination of a losing season.
The Bryce situation coupled with his initial failure to recruit from California and other factors, led him to three years at UCLA, that, taken on balance, were not worthy of keeping the job. This is not a rec team where a Dad coaches his kid and showcases him. There is no way Steve Alford would have survived at the other blueblood schools such as Kansas, Kentucky or North Carolina. Why should UCLA have lower standards?
(And for those of you who say "look at the recruiting class", keep in mind the last time UCLA had a number #1 recruiting class, the season ended with Ben Howland getting fired.)
Seat Belts Fastened
I don't feel wrong about thinking Steve should have been fired. I think it is still too early to anoint him as doing a great job this year. The team must continue to improve because other elite teams like Kentucky certainly will. It is how you finish that counts, not how you start.
However, I will continue to enjoy this season and hope for the best. While UCLA is led by a possibly once in a generation player in Lonzo Ball, Alford has done a great job of making all the pieces mesh.
I can't forget the past but, so far, this season has been great fun. Let's hope it stays fun until the end.