The UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team returns home this afternoon after losing three straight games. Whether the crowd at Pauley Pavilion today will be friendly to head coach Steve Alford remains to be seen, but the fact is that, if Alford is unable to beat the Liberty Flames, the flames under Alford’s hot seat will only get bigger.
I think most Bruin fans are done with Alford and his excuses. In his weekly press conference yesterday, he trotted out one of his favorites — the ol’ “We’re a young team” excuse. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken him this long to pull that one out. I guess he couldn’t really do that before now because they had to face Ohio State last weekend and the Buckeyes are also a young team.
But, with the Buckeyes’ game in the rear-view mirror, Alford has gone back to his ol’ reliable excuse.
I do think that last weekend’s loss to Ohio State gave many Bruin fans hope, albeit hope that Alford would have been fired this week. Alas, Alford has not yet convinced his “audience of one” that he shouldn’t be allowed to finish this season yet.
But, fear not, Bruins fans!
Today’s game presents him with another opportunity. After all, the Flames are 10-4 so far this season. Granted, the Flames “signature wins” so far have been road wins against Kent State and Navy, but they’ve also had a few losses to SEC teams Vanderbilt and Alabama where they lost by less than 10 points. In fact, their worst loss of the season was a ten-point loss to Georgetown.
The Flames look to be a pretty well-coached team. They are led by Ritchie McKay. Ironically, it was McKay who Steve Alford replaced at New Mexico. So, McKay might want to get a little revenge by getting Alford fired from UCLA.
McKay is in his second stint with Liberty after spending six seasons working under Tony Bennett at Virginia. He may have learned a little something from Bennett while there. After coaching the Flames to a 13-19 record in the first season of his second stint at Liberty, McKay won 21 games in 2016-17 and 22 games last season.
His team will play a 4-guard lineup and will rely on a lot of three-pointers. As a team, the Flames are shooting 39.5% from behind the arc and 50.2% from the field. Look for the Flames to try to setup 6’1” junior guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz who is shooting 56.4% from three-point range. While Pacheco-Ortiz has only been averaging 7.1 ppg, McKay will likely recognize the fact that the Bruins are vulnerable from long-range and look to get the ball to him more than they have this season.
Liberty’s leading scorer is redshirt junior forward Scottie James. James is averaging 12.4 ppg, but is also shooting 75.9% from the field and 75% from three-point range, even though James has taken just eight three-pointers attempts.
Elijah Cuffee, Caleb Homesley and Lovell Cabbil look to be the Flames’ other three starters this afternoon. Cuffee is the best shooter of the three with a 48.3% shooting percentage from the field and 48.1% from three. Homesley and Cabbil are also good shooters with field goal percentages of 47.1% and 45.8%, respectively.
Overall, Liberty is sixth in the nation in three-pointers made with 150 and they are 16th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 61.5 points per game. McKay has implemented Bennett’s “Pack Line Defense” at Liberty and that may prove to be the difference in this afternoon’s game.
The bottom line here is that UCLA should win this game. They are clearly the more talented squad, at least in terms of potential. But, based on how the Bruins have been executing, the Flames may prove to be a better team with their shooting and their defense.
If that proves to be the case, Dan Guerrero may be forced to do something.