A Bumpy Start for Steve Alford at UCLA, But Plenty of Reason for HopePosted by AMurawa on October 9th, 2013
Coaching changes are rarely easy. Aside from the typical human stresses of finding a new home and getting to know your new surroundings, for a head coach at a major college basketball program, there are a bunch of young adults in both high school and college for whom you have to account. More than one new head coach’s job has been made much more difficult by the immediate transfers of key players or decommitments from recruits. And when you’re someone like Steve Alford, walking into a high profile job like UCLA as something other than the program’s first choice, the initial impression can be very important.
And, to put it plainly, the first few months of the Alford era in Westwood have been a mixed bag, at best. From the moment the news of the hire came down on the Saturday of last year’s Elite Eight, the wisdom of the decision was questioned. This was a guy just over a week past getting run out of the NCAA Tournament by heavy underdog Harvard, a loss that continued to leave him without a single Sweet Sixteen appearance since 1999. Not long after the hire was announced, many were reliving the questionable decisions Alford made in defending his former player Pierre Pierce against sexual assault charges while both were at Iowa. Alford eventually issued an apology, but it came almost two weeks after he was hired at UCLA and more than 11 years after the initial incident.
Further on down the road, Alford’s first months in Westwood were muddied by a decommitment from promising wing Allerik Freeman. More recently, Alford has struck out on a trio of point guards he was chasing in the 2014 class, losing Quentin Snyder to Illinois, Josh Perkins to Gonzaga, and most damningly, Jordan McLaughlin from Etiwanda High School (which had previously produced Bruin star Darren Collison) to cross-town rival USC. And to this point, there is not a single confirmed commitment to UCLA among the members of the 2014 recruiting class. Worse yet, the little brother basketball program at USC has their momentum meter pointed straight up, with a couple of key transfers and the McLaughlin signing as fuel to the fire. If you listened to some people around Los Angeles, you’d be sure the sky was definitely falling all around Pauley Pavilion.
Still, despite the definite lack of momentum around the UCLA program at this time, there is one thing that Alford definitely has going in his favor: He’s got a pretty darn good team returning. This is a UCLA team that won a tough Pac-12 last season. Sure, they’ve got to replace surprisingly efficient point guard Larry Drew II and first-round NBA draft pick Shabazz Muhammad. But they’ve got Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson returning after promising freshman seasons. They’ve got Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford (yes, the coach’s son) likely ready to contribute from day one in their new program. And they’ve got a pair of skilled, if not amazingly athletic, senior forwards in David and Travis Wear. Throw in four-star wing Isaac Hamilton, who still has a request into the NCAA for a waiver to play immediately after backing out of his letter of intent to UTEP (odds are good that Hamilton will not be eligible until 2014-15 at UCLA) and sophomore center Tony Parker, who Alford and staff successfully convinced to remain at UCLA rather than transfer, and, while there are certainly some holes that could be exacerbated by poorly timed injuries, this is a team that will almost certainly find itself near the top of the Pac-12 in March.
And really, what better way for a new head coach to build momentum around a program than to go out and win. Alford can look no further than Spaulding Field right outside Pauley Pavilion, where Jim Mora, whose hire was also loudly denounced by UCLA followers, is now enjoying the most success that program has had in more than a decade. Mora inherited a team with plenty of talent (funny how Rick Neuheisel never gets credit for that), turned the win-loss record around in his first year (not to mention beating USC) and then went out and used that success to land a top 10 recruiting class. Nowadays, Mora is fairly well canonized as the great hope for UCLA football. If Alford can coach these Bruins up, compete for a Pac-12 title, enjoy some success in the NCAA Tournament and then translate that into a couple of future recruiting scores, there is no reason why he couldn’t find himself equally firmly entrenched as the Bruin head coach of the future on the basketball side of things.