The mood around UCLA basketball has turned ugly. A combination of widely felt embarrassment, evolving at an alarming rate toward an angry indifference toward the program’s long malaise, has led the scribes to coin a new term: Embifference, to capture the reality.
And, now, after yet another embiffering loss at home, this time to a good but never-should-beat-UCLA-at-Pauley-Pavilion Belmont Bruins team, the UCLA Bruins are embarking on a last difficult road swing before the Pac-12 gauntlet begins. They will leave Los Angeles this week with a disappointing 9-3 record, having also been smoked by the two good teams they have played in highly-ranked North Carolina and Michigan State. Those games were not close and UCLA did not look good.
Expectations have slipped and rattled down the scale, settling in somewhere just above “low” amongst those still watching the team play, a small number of whom who still hope to see marked improvement as yet another lost year, the fourth such season in five, clanks along.
The first stop on the road this week is a nationally televised game Wednesday night at Fifth-Third Arena against the Cincinnati Bearcats. A tough, blue-collar, hard-nosed basketball program, the Bearcats went to Los Angeles last year and got rough with UCLA while dispatching them in convincing fashion in front of a gloomy home crowd.
That outcome was hardly surprising and par for the course under head coach Steve Alford, whose most consistent contribution to team annals has been losing to good basketball teams despite having at least as good, if not better, basketball players on his roster in ninety-percent or more of the team’s matchups.
A win at Cincinnati this year would astonish almost everyone still following the definitely-mediocre Alford-era of Bruins basketball. It could happen, and it might, because the coach has had an uncanny way of digging out a scrap of hope to toss to semi-rabid fans a heartbeat before they were about to devour him. His knack for doing this seems to be preternatural.
The second destination on the Bruins’ midwest express is a return to the scene of nightmarish carnage. UCLA will be back at the United Center in Chicago for the also nationally televised CBS Sports Classic, a doubleheader showcasing Ohio State, Kentucky, and North Carolina, a group that boasts both a proud, decorated program in Ohio State, and college basketball royalty amongst the rest.
The Bruins who, by nearly every metric stand a head above every program in the field, will be the worst team in the building and will come into the doubleheader well outside the Top 25. They will be the underdogs and likely losers on the afternoon and that, friends, is a hard pill to swallow.
Back in December 2014, Coach Alford brought another one of his unranked UCLA teams into the same event and simply got destroyed . . . crushed . . . humiliated . . . housed . . . owned . . . pulverized . . . pummeled . . . throttled . . . . There are not adjectives or descriptors strong enough to make you truly see what happened to the Bruins that afternoon.
When the final buzzer sounded, the score was Kentucky 83, UCLA 44. It was the second worst loss in the long history of a storied basketball program. But that score doesn’t do the obliteration justice, either.
Kentucky was ahead 24-0 before UCLA scored a bucket The score was 41-7 at the half and the Wildcats had blocked eight shots, one more than the Bruins had points. UCLA shot eight percent from the floor for the half, and 26 percent for the game. The teams did not look like they played at the same level of basketball, though the Bruins had more of everything than the Wildcats. Kentucky players were laughing maniacally, bumping chests, inventing new handshakes, and bellowing like mad men on the floor as they hammered home dunk after dunk and swatted shot after UCLA shot.
There just are not the words to describe it. While in terms of points it might be the second-worst loss in school history, but on the broader spectrum of: How bad was it? There cannot be any worse example. It was mortifying and it all belongs to the current head coach.
That same coach has a chance to redeem himself somewhat Saturday, and that too stirs a mix of emotions. Each season there is some just-saving grace that seems to be for Alford—who remains resilient in this sport because of his long history in the game and his immense career as an NCAA player—an amazing purchaser of more time.
Some single win, some just snuck into the NCAA Tournament field outcome, some timely injury, which makes people think there were circumstances thwarting the excellence of the coach and not the mediocrity of the coach himself. This, in spite of the fact that every one of his teams has underperformed, often in the same excruciatingly fundamental fashion. This song has been stuck on repeat for a long time.
If Alford manages to get a signature win against the 15th-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes (9-1) on national television, there will be people, a lot of people mind you, in addition to the largely nonchalant athletic director, Dan Guerrero, who will see it as a sign the program is closer to a return to glory rather than fading fast into mediocrity while becoming merely a regional curiosity, as opposed to a national powerhouse through which a road to titles readily runs.
This is hard on fans and alumni of the club who cannot bear, and should not be asked, to root against their team as the only hope against jettisoning an ineffective, largely unliked head coach. But, therein, lies the rub.
Plenty of people, including myself, hated the Ben Howland firing at the end of 2013. The timing was comically bad after Howland had hauled in a nationally number-one ranked recruiting class and won a conference championship for the school, his fourth in ten seasons. If not for an injury to Jordan Adams, the team’s top scorer in the conference tournament semifinals, the Bruins likely would have won both the regular season and tournament titles.
While there were internal problems with Howland’s tenure, the national optics on the firing almost guaranteed only a mercenary with questionable values would take the position. Who wants to sign on with an outfit that treats their own that way? Howland’s internal struggles were not widely known or understood. That tone-deaf action made UCLA look delusional and worse.
It was a difficult situation and Guerrero handled it poorly. It got worse when he signed Alford, the coach no one else wanted, away from New Mexico after he had agreed just days earlier to a 10-year extension in Albuquerque. The good guns stayed in their own backyards when UCLA sent out the call, the lone-wolf mercenary answered. It was predictable.
Which brings the story full circle. The Cincinnati team UCLA faces Wednesday will be coming off a drubbing at the hands of Mississippi State down in Starkville, a team coached by none other than Howland, the former resurrector of UCLA basketball. Howland has the Bulldogs, an irrelevant basketball school before his arrival, sitting at 9-1, ranked 17th in the country.
And don’t you wish it was UCLA?
It is a scary week for the Bruins basketball team, but do try to keep your eyes open. I’ll be there again in Chicago, as I was in 2014. Lord, do I hope it all plays out another way.