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UCLA Basketball: Steve Alford (Finally) Gets Defensive...in an LA Times Interview

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Alford pointed the finger every which way but towards himself.

NCAA Basketball: Colorado at UCLA
I will never stop using this photo.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Hi friends! Dimitri here, taking a break from my teacher school sabbatical because news has reached me that has shaken me to my core.

Ok, it wasn’t that big, but DC presented me an opportunity to publicly drag someone, and who am I to turn down such an opportunity?

See, yesterday, the LA Times and writer Ben Bolch provided UCLA Bruins head coach Steve Alford the very public opportunity to address his critics regarding what has been, in many regards, a disappointing season for the UCLA men’s basketball team. And, in turn, Steve Alford decided the best course of action was to point the finger in every single direction except himself, which, hey, that’s Alford being Alford. Am I right?

Let’s go through this thing piece by piece, and we’re starting with some well-deserved shade from Bolch:

Two years after UCLA men’s basketball coach Steve Alford vowed in a letter to fans that his team’s poor defensive showing “can never happen again,” a regrettable chapter in Bruins history has repeated itself.

You know, I have to give credit to Ben here. It would have been so easy for this to be a “UCLA fans are unrealistic” article that could have easily been ghostwritten by Dylan Hernandez, but Bolch decided to start this whole thing off by applying pressure to Alford from the word go.

The irony is that Alford had expected this team to be strong defensively. Then the Bruins went to China in November and three players were lost for the season after stealing merchandise from upscale stores at a mall.

Other poor things we can attribute to the “Hangzhou Three”:

  • Team USA’s poor performance at the Winter Olympics
  • Taylor Swift’s Reputation album
  • The NFL’s declining ratings
  • The latest Roman Reigns push
  • Global warming
  • The ridiculous crowd levels at Disneyland
  • Internet clickbait

This is really fun and something you should definitely try in the comments, and also if you get political with it I will stop you with more force than UCLA’s defense has shown all season.

“That’s a lot of athleticism and length to lose in your defense overnight,” Alford said Wednesday. “It’s not an excuse, but you’re asking me what happened [and] defensively we took on a whole ‘nother look because we don’t have the depth. We couldn’t extend pressure, basically we weren’t going to play beyond eight guys.”

Steve, that is the literal definition of an excuse. Whenever a collegiate coach starts a sentence by saying, “It’s not an excuse...”, there is definitely an excuse coming. Or, in the case of Alford’s excuse, it was at least an attempt at an excuse.

UCLA’s resulting defensive problems are not a result of neglect; Alford said his team “puts three times more energy in practice at the defensive end than what we have at the offensive end. … It’s not so much hitting the panic button as [saying], ‘Guys, here’s where we’re a little lax in, we’ve just got to get a little tougher-minded in how we concentrate and how we execute.’ “

This quote is awfully reminiscent of Karl Dorrell’s old comment about “coaching hard.” Thankfully, at the end of that season, Dan Guerrero put the misery of the Dorrell years to an end by firing Dorrell. Unfortunately, he would also hire two more football coaches before finally making a home run hire as football head coach. Let’s hope the same thing doesn’t happen this time. Like replacing Alford with someone like Earl Watson, who has done absolutely nothing to earn the job of UCLA head basketball coach.

The list of issues has been lengthy. The Bruins have largely failed to stop dribble penetration or defend the three-point line. They have been slow to rotate at times and over-helped at others. Mixing in a 3-2 zone defense has not appreciably solved anything for a team that is giving up 76.4 points per game, ranking 10th in the Pac-12.

So, I know I’ve been throwing in small pieces of commentary, but, as a person who has been officially covering the UCLA basketball team for two years now on this website, allow me a moment to break this down a bit more.

See, UCLA’s problem on defense begins on the perimeter and trickles down to every other facet. UCLA absolutely struggles at defending the three, which other teams that possess coaches with a pulse have recognized and taken advantage of. Just to use a recent example, Colorado launched 30 threes on Sunday, landing them at a 46.7% rate. Often times, the Bruins end up completely out of rotation and give up open looks. Other times, in their rush to correct this terrible defense, the Bruin defenders end up overcompensating, and then allow easy looks near the hoop. This is especially bad for UCLA’s big men, as Thomas Welsh and GG Goloman (my large Hungarian son) end up having to defend two men at once in these situations. Worse than that, UCLA’s lack of a true 4 means that one of them ends up having to guard the perimeter, making them the defensive equivalent of a wet napkin.

Bolch also brings up UCLA’s 3-2 zone, which is an equally bad defense. UCLA tends to employ it when they want to shut a team down from outside, except the basic construction of that defense, at least the way UCLA runs it, easily creates open looks in the corner, which is one of the most efficient shots in basketball. That’s not good! And again, it forces UCLA’s bigs to either shift out to the perimeter where they are less effective defensively and has the additional effect of hurting UCLA’s ability to rebound effectively (which, to be fair, wasn’t great to begin with outside of Welsh).

Now, looking at UCLA’s personnel, you’d think a 2-1-2 zone would probably work best with this group. It’d keep one of UCLA’s bigs in a better position defensively (aka keeps them away from the perimeter) and in better position to help UCLA’s perimeter defenders, which in turn would allow them to play more aggressively without fear of things instantly blowing up after a mistake. The downsides would be that this would require stellar weak side help from the 3 and 4 positions, but we’re basically just trying whatever we can at this point considering the only two Pac-12 teams allowing more points per game than the Bruins are Washington State and UC Berkeley.

Alright, back to the analysis.

The Bruins have gotten progressively worse in defensive efficiency under Alford since ranking No. 37 during his first season in 2013-14; they ranked No. 66 in 2014-15 and No. 118 in 2015-16 before a slight uptick to No. 85 last season. Alford pinned his team’s defensive struggles from two seasons ago on a recruiting miss involving guard Jaylen Brown, who picked California over UCLA, and graduate transfer Jon Octeus being denied admission, leaving the roster woefully thin.

There’s so much to break down in this one little paragraph. First off, I don’t know about you all, but every time I’m confronted by evidence that my performance has gotten increasingly worse on a yearly basis, I make sure to deflect blame for one of those years by pointing out some other mistakes I made. Second, you are allowed 13 scholarship athletes in basketball, so again, you aren’t allowed to say your roster is thin because two guys didn’t come in 2015, because it again highlights the fact that you had a TON of misses during that time. And again, how do incoming players make your defense better when you’ve repeatedly shown that your ability to teach those specific players defense is suspect at best?

If anything, I’m hoping that Bolch asked Steve the most obvious follow-up question in history after listening to him try to shift the blame for his defensive struggles on Jaylen Brown: “And what do you say about the fact that your team’s defensive slide seems to coincide with the departure of Ben Howland-coached players?” But I’m also fairly confident the Times doesn’t want their columnists black-listed by a local basketball program.

“You couldn’t look at your bench and say, ‘OK, let’s motivate by sitting you and playing somebody else,’ “ Alford said. “You couldn’t do that because there was nobody else to go to.”

I did not realize UCLA’s depth was so bad that they couldn’t afford to message-bench players during non-conference games against the likes of Detroit Mercy. And again, listening to Captain 8-Man Rotation Forever complain about depth THAT HE HAS DIRECT CONTROL OVER remains hilarious.

“Getting to the Sweet 16 is hard to do in this era now; I think you’re looking at a whole different era,” Alford said, “and so I do think that is an accomplishment that kind of gets thrown under the rug but a lot of teams would like to be getting to the Sweet 16.”

Arizona loves going to the Sweet 16 so much they hang banners for it. Maybe UCLA should try that too!

The Bruins won the Pac-12 tournament during Alford’s first season but are assured of going a fifth consecutive season without a regular-season conference title under the coach who has compiled a 115-55 record. Alford’s winning percentage of 67.6% at UCLA is worse than predecessors Ben Howland (73.7%) and Steve Lavin (70.8%) through their first five seasons.

This is straight-up savage from Bolch, as any time you can say “You were worse than Lavin” with a straight face, you shoot that shot. SPEAKING OF LAVIN:

I still can’t believe that Steve Alford’s legacy might truly be making Steve Lavin look good by comparison. Now, I don’t want to detract from my analysis of Bolch’s article, but David Woods had another interesting stat on Twitter the other day that is even more savage than Bolch’s.

So, wait a minute...Alford isn’t just worse than Lavin. He’s UCLA’s worst basketball coach through five seasons in SEVENTY YEARS? Wow. That even makes UCLA Men’s Soccer coach Jorge Salcedo look good. Salcedo’s team also had a historically bad season this year. The men’s soccer team had its worst season (and only losing season) since 1952 and, somehow, Salcedo still has a job. It’s no wonder then why some people seem to think Alford’s job might be safe, even though it shouldn’t be.

Bolch’s article concludes by saying:

While UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said in January that he expected a program to be “clicking on all cylinders” by its fifth year under a coach, Alford said he used a different metric to evaluate his results.

”I don’t really look at it where we are at Year 2, 3, 4, 5; it’s just, are we doing everything we can with what we have?” Alford said. “I feel like the staff has worked extremely hard, I think the players have worked extremely hard. … We would have liked to have won a [Pac-12] championship, but with everything that’s happened and everything that’s transpired, these guys have worked awfully hard, they’ve done a lot of good things and now we’ve got to wait and see how we finish here.”

Somewhere in the Morgan Center, Jorge Salcedo is nodding his head in agreement.