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UCLA Men's Basketball Q & A - Hard Times Edition

The Bruins split last week's home games against the Rocky Mountain schools, leaving them tied for eighth in the conference and still under .500 in the Pac-12 with just four regular season games left to play.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Bruins had two winnable games last week. In fact, while they weren't must-win games in a strict sense, they were must-win games in a practical sense. You know how it turned out, of course. The consistently inconsistent Bruins managed to beat Colorado after coming up short against Utah. A season in which the Bruins were expected to make a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance during Steve Alford's tenure is now increasingly looking like a season in which UCLA will be playing in the NIT.

1. While UCLA still has a mathematical chance, after the next loss they are out of the tourney barring winning the PAC 12 Tournement. At that point do you think they should start playing for next year? What would that entail?

Bruinette88: Good coaches are always trying to balance the objective of winning now against the goal of developing players to win in the future, either later in the season or in the following seasons. In that regard, Steve Alford seems to be particularly shortsighted in his approach, and I don't expect that to change even after our next loss. However, all the things that Alford should do after UCLA's next loss are things he should have started doing in the nonconference portion of the schedule: make Aaron Holiday the primary playmaker, give Prince Ali meaningful minutes, simplify the roles of the trio of forwards with an emphasis on rebounding and defense, get more touches for Thomas Welsh to enable him to be more involved in the offense, and award playing time on the basis of defensive effort and effectiveness in order to change the mindset of the players. The long term benefits of those changes outweigh the short term costs.

DCBruins: I would agree and great point on "should have been done it in the non-conference". My only caveat is Holliday. He did give Holiday a chance. Holiday wasn't ready. He should turn it over to Holiday completely after the next loss. Holiday may be ready now and it certainly would help him more than Bryce.

Bruinette88: Well, it's true that Holiday was given a chance for five games, but that was as part of a double point guard set-up rather than as the primary playmaker; the decision to have Bryce be the sole point guard was made because Steve Alford put greater emphasis on short term results than long term benefits.

2. Why have the Bruins been so poor defensively this season?

DCBruins: Steve Alford's handling of Bryce. It is not that just Bryce is a bad defender, it is Bryce did not try and was not held accountable . Occasionally Steve has benched Bryce for terrible shot selection but never for horrid defensive effort. That sends a bad signal to the guys that D does not matter. Bryce is the designated leader and it is tough to be good on D when the leader often does not even try.

Bruinette88: I agree that it starts at the top with the coach and the designated team leader. As you know, Steve Alford hasn't always had a defense-last mentality in his coaching career, so it's curious that each of his UCLA teams is relatively worse defensively than the previous one. In terms of ranking,Alford's first UCLA team was 45th in adjusted defensive efficiency; last season the Bruins ranked 67th, and this season the Bruins are 96th. That's a pretty sharp decline.

I know that some fans blame UCLA's lack of athleticism for the poor defensive performance this year, but I think that criticism misses the mark. Remember Ben Howland's final UCLA team that he described as "unathletic?" That team had an adjusted defensive efficiency of 95.5 points per 100 possessions, which is substantially lower than the 100 points per 100 possessions that Steve Alford's Bruins are allowing this season. It's not the players, it's the coaching and the defense-last mentality that Alford has brought to the program.

3. This team should be in the NCAA Tournament and fighting for seeding this time of year. Name the biggest (only one please) mistake Alford made this season?

Bruinette88: Reliance on the big-big novelty lineup was probably the biggest mistake. As we both noted from the start of the season, it was always going to be costly at the defensive end, even though it might work overall against some teams, Unfortunately Steve Alford has never demonstrated the willingness to adapt his schemes to take advantage of the weaknesses of specific opponents, so it became the default lineup in every game. In fact, I remember several of his press conferences in which he acknowledged that a big-big lineup could be disadvantageous against some teams, but he consistently acted as if he had no choice in the matter.

Of course his decision to play Parker and Welsh together had a trickle-down effect that led to a number of other dumb decisions (e.g., trying to use Bolden as a "big guard"). At the basis of all of these mistakes is the fact that Alford is seemingly extraordinarily poor at evaluating talent. There are many examples of this that range from his assessment that Parker would be effective guarding a 4 to his conviction that Isaac Hamilton would be productive as a point guard. In each case, Alford would have been well-served by having an assistant with the courage to remind him that square pegs don't fit in round holes.

DCBruins: Hard to add much to this. I will just say that a great example of his mindless rigidity was completely giving up on big-big. You play it for 20 games then never again?!!? It can work against certian teams and it may be better than playing GG when Bolden has to rest for a few minutes a game. Big Big had to go but you shouldn't throw it away completely as it did beat Kentucky and Arizona.

Bruinette88: Steve Alford claims to value versatility, but there's no practical value in versatility if inflexibility keeps you from utilizing it.

4. As things now stand, UCLA is likely to get an invitation to participate in the NIT. Do you think UCLA should play in the consolation tournament?

DCBruins: I think the players should decide. If senior Tony Parker wants a few more games, I think he has earned that right. I am not some purist who says the NIT is beneath us. That said I am not a big fan of it .

Bruinette88: No. Last year I wrote a commentary about the decision of our women's basketball team to participate in the WNIT. My position then was that our student-athletes have to learn from their failures, and in that instance, it would have meant turning down the "mini-reward" of participation in the national consolation tournament. However, I also acknowledged Coach Close's argument that playing in the WNIT was a teaching opportunity that "could be program forming." To her credit, Coach Close (who is a Wooden disciple, by the way) made the most of the opportunity.

Unfortunately the situation is different for our men's basketball team because I don't regard Steve Alford as a teacher. I see evidence that he's a recruiter and a self-promoter, but not a coach as Wooden defined the position. As Wooden said, "the coach is first of all a teacher." From that perspective, I don't see any significant benefit from participation in the NIT. Our student-athletes should focus on the student part of their UCLA experience instead. I have sympathy for Tony Parker, though; he deserves better than to have his career end at the Pac-12 tournament. On the other hand, the rest of the players will have another opportunity to get things right next season.