Could UCLA men’s head basketball coach Steve Alford be fired mid-season?
The Bruin’s basketball team is—at 9-4 with two-straight bad losses—in real danger of falling into a potentially historic nose dive and its unpopular head coach is blaming the players he recruited for the abysmal play.
After a nearly 30-point loss on the road to an unranked Cincinnati Bearcats team, Steve Alford suggested last night to the Los Angeles Times’ Ben Bolch that players not getting into the gym on their off days was the reason his team was annihilated in front of a national television audience.
Steve Alford: "If you lose, you get in the gym on your day off and you figure things out, not wait and get in the gym when we meet with you. You’ve got to do things as a player to figure things out. It’s not an AAU game where you’re going to get beat and you play again at night."— Ben Bolch (@latbbolch) December 20, 2018
Quickly realizing he had just laid the blame for an historic drubbing at the feet of the players he coaches, Alford attempted to walk back the statement in a rambling, largely incoherent statement that, in the end, said nothing more than he gives the team days off and knows what he covered in practice.
I asked Steve Alford if he was saying his players were not putting in the extra needed work: " No, I’m not saying that. I’ve got to get them mandatory days off, so when I give them a mandatory day off, that’s what they do. All I can do is, I know what I did."— Ben Bolch (@latbbolch) December 20, 2018
It was a sad, but typical statement made by a coach who has a history of blaming both circumstances out of his control and other people for his professional missteps. Extreme ownership is not a character trait of the current head coach.
Plainly put, the Bruins were terrible last night during a 93-64 loss. They did not run their offense and clearly do not know how to play defense. The squad was crushed on both the offensive and defensive glass and committed 14 turnovers to the Bearcats’ six. They trailed by 17 at the half and by 29 at the final horn. The game literally got worse by the minute.
It became yet another night where opposition fans were dancing in the aisles while the players smiled and laughed and bumped chests as they ran up the score on what has historically been one of the nation’s most heralded blue-blooded basketball programs.
In other words, it is still a big deal to beat UCLA, but how much longer will that last?
Beyond the statistics, which do tell a convincing story, the eye test was somehow worse. The total confusion and incompetence were apparent both to casual basketball fans and serious observers.
Former UCLA guard and long-time professional Darrick Martin was watching the game. He published several heartfelt but crushing tweets immediately following the game.
Let me preference my comments by saying I love UCLA. I have watched @UCLAMBBteam a lot this season. We are not very good. We are stagnant on offense and we run the most antiquated offense I have ever seen. We have no quick hitting plays or plays that cause the defense to shift— Darrick Martin (@DarrickMartin15) December 20, 2018
Martin added a follow-up tweet.
We should never get beat by 30 points. Also you have to evolve as a coach, you have to challenge yourself everyday. Am I doing my best to help the kids on my team be successful . Finally it’s nothing entertaining about watching @UCLAMBB It’s a hard watch— Darrick Martin (@DarrickMartin15) December 20, 2018
I would only amplify Martin’s point by saying it is not a hard watch. It is a brutal watch. The players do not have the tools, the teamwork, the vision, or the purpose to compete at this level. The coach does not appear to have the reservoir of wisdom or ability to fix the problem. No one is getting better and no one is stepping up to hold the team accountable. It is a lame-duck season and this UCLA team appears to be flying blind.
But Martin said more that is worth thinking about.
A stunning lack of player development is a common refrain in UCLA circles. People see talented high schoolers come in, remain talented high-schoolers during their time in Westwood, leaving maybe a little physically stronger after playing on largely forgettable teams, only to develop into NBA All-Stars, Slam Dunk champions, and big contributors to professional teams.
The most famous example of Alford’s poor player judgement was the curious case of Zach LaVine. LaVine, an athletic monster with sky-high potential, was platooned his freshman season with the coach’s son, Bryce Alford, a fringe professional prospect who needed several seasons to develop into an efficient contributor.
When LaVine suddenly declared for the NBA Draft after his freshman season (where he was taken in the lottery at pick number 13), many UCLA people were stunned.
LaVine had played around 23 minutes a game and had showed little notable growth to his game. The Minnesota Timberwolves general manager, the late Flip Saunders, famously summed it up by stating in plain English that LaVine was getting sandbagged with the coach’s son.
Minnesota coach Flip Saunders on LaVine: "It was a tough situation at UCLA with the players they had. He was there with Coach Alford’s son."— Ryan Kartje (@Ryan_Kartje) June 27, 2014
LaVine, of course, went on to become one of the most spectacular dunk champions in NBA history and was signed after several years in Minnesota by the Chicago Bulls as the franchise’s star player.
Martin reinforced this point with a rhetorical question in another one of his tweets.
Simple question. Do the players that come to @UCLAMBB develop and get better or are they the same player they were when they got to UCLA?— Darrick Martin (@DarrickMartin15) December 20, 2018
Beyond everything else, last night’s loss brought to the surface another troubling Alford specialty: The blowout loss in the team’s biggest games.
Since 2013, Alford has overseen several of the Bruins’ biggest-ever losses, from the 39-pointer to Kentucky at the CBS Sports Classic in 2014; to the 32-point conference loss at Utah; the 24-point loss to Southern Cal in the Pac-12 Tournament; and three double-digit losses in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 (the furthest Alford has brought any team in his nearly 30 years of coaching)—including an 11-point loss to a Florida Gators team that had zero NBA Draft picks on its roster to UCLA’s three.
UCLA's 29-point loss to Cincinnati marked the Bruins' third-largest margin of defeat in the Steve Alford era.— Matt Joye (@mattjoye) December 20, 2018
(The highlighted rows represent losses that have occurred this season) pic.twitter.com/HBPBGBMFYP
It is only two days until the Bruins play once more in the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago, where they will face Ohio State out of the mighty Big Ten, the country’s 15th ranked team. Last night was the second worse loss I have ever seen from a UCLA team, the first was the 2014 CBS Sports Classic against Kentucky.
What fate is in store Saturday while the country looks on? Where does the bleeding finally stop?