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UCLA Basketball: The Bartow Difference

UCLA men’s basketball is “fun” again and there are no expectations.

NCAA Basketball: California at UCLA Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Interim UCLA basketball coach Murry Bartow has the team playing much better. I am enjoying watching UCLA again. To be clear, it is fun to watch UCLA basketball again.

That said. Is it good? Hell no. The offense is, at times, ugly. But here is the thing: there is no mixed feelings that, if we make a run in this terrible Pac-12, we may be stuck with Alford for another year. There is no more dreading the postgame press conference with excuses from Alford saying how “young” we are. There is also the fun of knowing that the UCLA Bruins could win every game in the Pac-12 except at Utah, but not knowing for sure what will happen on any given night.

The Bartow Difference: A Fan’s Perspective

UCLA has a terrible history of promoting assistants. Anyone in their mid-30s remembers the Steve Lavin debacle. Barely removed from being a graduate assistant, Steve Lavin took over a Harrick-coached team shortly before the season and Lavin won the Pac-10 and took the team to the Elite Eight. As a result, he was hired and, under Lavin, UCLA never came close to that success again.

Of course, that was also the case with Walt Hazzard and Larry Farmer when UCLA took an unqualified assistant and made him permanent head coach. Hazzard was particularly surreal as he was going to the press conference to be hired as an assistant, but, when then-head coach Larry Farmer quit, he was made head coach instead. He was even confused at the press conference if he was head coach or co-coach with Jack Hirsch.

Here is the thing: those moves were done with previous Athletic Directors at a time when UCLA was grossly under paying coaches and try to do things cheaply. UCLA does not have to gamble on unknown coaches now and can pay real money.

“But,” you say. “Murry Bartow could easily win this terrible Pac-12.” Don’t worry. Remember Dan Guerrero fired Ben Howland after he won a regular season championship. Howland had taken UCLA to 3 Final Fours and had been a success in his entire career. Bartow went 1-16 in his last gig. He is not a candidate for the job under almost any circumstance. And, if Bartow does a Steve Fisher and wins a national championship, yep, he’ll keep the job, but I think all fans will be okay with that.

Relax and enjoy the ride.

The Bartow Difference: The Bench as a Tool, Not Merely a Resting Place

One statistical note overlooked was, in his first game as head coach, Bartow played UCLA star Kris Wilkes the fewest minutes (18) of his career. It was the only time he had played less than half a game except in a 33-point non-conference blowout of Detroit Mercy his freshman year. He benched Wilkes for bad shots and poor defense. It was great to see.

He also rides the hot hand. In his second game as coach, Bartow played David Singleton for 16 minutes in the first half more than he played in most games under Steve Alford. Singleton was hot from three and scored 14 points. The matchups and UC Berkeley’s defense dictated it and, unlike Alford and many coaches who don’t alter their rotations but for fouls or injuries, he seemingly threw it out the window when Singleton was playing like the best player on the court.

He also did that against Oregon with Jalen Hill. Hill was playing well and had his first double-double. Oregon had no bigs inside to match up with him and Bartow benched starting four Chris Smith for the second half for Jalen Hill.

Bartow has also gone deep into his bench. 48-41, 48-41, 54-38 is the score for the second halves under Bartow. UCLA is a +28 in the second half in those three games versus a +7 for the first half. Part of the reason may be the fact that UCLA plays so deep and wears out the other team. The best example of how deep UCLA goes under Bartow is the forgotten Kenneth Nwuba who has played in the first half of all three games. While his nine minutes in those three games does not seem like a lot, you would have to go back seven games under Alford before he would exceed that total. I am mixed on going this deep, but UCLA has been better in the second half so far.

The Bartow Difference: Lineups

Cody Riley is the player whose minutes have taken the biggest hit since Bartow took over. He has been benched for Chris Smith. In Bartow’s first game, Smith had his first start and his first 30 minute game. Smith is a versatile athlete who can really potentially cover any position, He was even the five in UCLA’s desperation press against Oregon. But that may not be why he starts. The real reason may be he makes the best player better.

Moses Brown is averaging a triple-double and shooting 71% under Bartow. This is not because UCLA has suddenly developed an offense for him. While this is not a huge increase statistically if you throw out the first games where Brown dominated bad teams, it is a noticeable improvement. It is not because he has more plays called for him or that he is posting up better, though. It is because he has room to operate.

Cody Riley is a more technically proficient post and better passer than Moses. So what? Moses is a better player. While Riley can play reasonably well outside, he is not comfortable defending outside. Smith is seemingly comfortable anywhere on the floor. And Smith, unlike Riley, can become virtually a fourth guard on offense. The extra space makes Brown a better player. And Brown is the most unique weapon on this team.

In the four-game losing streak that resulted in Alford being fired, Riley played 11 more minutes than Brown. Since then, Brown has played 46 more minutes than Riley.

Let me take it a step further. Cody Riley is a better four than Smith and a better shooter inside and out. He is a more traditional four and the thickest body on the team. Riley is a good player, but this UCLA team needs Brown on the floor and Smith compliments Brown better.

Alford never figured that out. I am going to give two examples, one that people will agree with and one I will get flamed for. Alford inexplicably played Thomas Welsh and Tony Parker together. Two college fives. It did not work and Parker had a worse senior season then he had as a junior. Alford needed to realize that Welsh had surpassed Parker, but, even though they were both in the top five on that team, they could not be on the floor at the same time. Jonah Bolden and Alex Olesinski needed to be the fours.

The other time Alford blew that was with Ike Anigbogu. Thomas Welsh was a better overall player than Ike. There’s no doubt about that, but that team was loaded on offense and could have used a true inside player for defense and rebounding. TJ Leaf, Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford, and Lonzo Ball could all score and were are big threats from the outside. That team did not need Welsh’s midrange mastery as much as it needed an inside player to keep defenses honest. While Welsh was a very good defensive rebounder, a team with Bryce and Isaac needed a shot blocker and inside presence which Anigbogu was in spades. What I am trying to say is one way Alford blew it with his “best” team was he kept an NBA-level inside presence shot blocker on the bench for another good shooter on the best shooting UCLA team in recent memory. Welsh was a better player, but a luxury for that team. Anigbogu was an NBA-talent who filled a need.

Bartow seemingly is not making that error by playing Riley, but instead going to Brown and Smith more.

The Bartow Difference: In-Game Coaching

Steve Alford looked disgusted at times with his players, but was rarely demonstrative during games. He had game plans but really never changed based on what happen in the game. Lastly, he only used timeouts to call plays. He never used them for defense and very rarely used them to change momentum.

Bartow is completely different and it may have won the Oregon game for us. On the last play when Hands missed the free throw, Bartow subbed in two bigs and took out Kris Wilkes and Prince Ali. Alford would have never taken Wilkes out. But, the more interesting thing was what happen with Chris Smith. Bartow grabbed Smith, put him at the three point line, and very clearly told him to try to sneak in for a rebound. The result was the game-tying basket.

Bartow does not look like a “players coach” but is yelling and screaming the whole game. He is into the game. I know people have mixed emotions about “yellers” but Bartow is more like Ben Howland than Steve Alford.

Steve Alford always called a timeout at the end of the half to set up a play. That was the only reason he called timeouts it seemed. Bartow uses timeouts for defense, momentum, and to call plays.

The Bartow Difference: Karma

All the bad things that people say about UCLA fans expecting the next John Wooden are totally irrelevant today. I have never met a fan who expects any coach to be John Wooden. UCLA fans today, if anything, have set their expectations too low relative to other blue blood programs such as North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas.

However, there is a reason that the “unreasonable expectations” line is repeated. That WAS true for Murry Bartow’s dad Gene who immediately followed John Wooden as coach. At that time, there were fans whose expectations were unreasonable. Gene took it hard when he was doing “good” but not good enough. It was not a good chapter in UCLA fan history.

Meanwhile, Steve Alford was always a product of Bob Knight and Indiana. He was not comfortable with UCLA’s history and certainly not a product of it.

That said, for Murry, it is the opposite. He literally grew up at UCLA and was a Wooden camper.

His experience is also the opposite of his Dads. Fans are relieved to be free of Steve Alford and cheering for Bartow. UCLA basketball is a hot mess with no expectations. There’s a lot of talent, but the word raw does not always do it justice. I think we set a UCLA record for missed dunks against Notre Dame as one example. The Pac-12 is possibly the worst it has ever been, giving a hot mess of a team a chance to win.

This is a way to say that UCLA could easily have a season where everyone is happy with Coach Bartow, even if it is not pretty or generically a UCLA-level season. We have a good chance to compete for the Pac-12 regular season title, something we never did with Steve Alford. It will be fun to watch and cheer for UCLA, even if it is not always pretty.

And the Bartow family deserves that.

Go Bruins!