Assessing the Steve Alford Era at UCLA Almost One Year InPosted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 26th, 2014
It was a year ago this week that the change was made at UCLA. Ben Howland was dismissed after an opening round NCAA loss to Minnesota, and the following week, on Saturday morning of the Elite Eight to be precise, UCLA announced that it would hire New Mexico head coach Steve Alford – who had just recently agreed to a lengthy contract extension with that school after its own untimely exit from the NCAA Tournament – as the 13th head coach in the storied program’s history.
Suffice it to say that the beginning of the Alford era in Westwood did not begin smoothly. The hire was greeted with anywhere from an outright disdain for the choice to a more wait-and-see approach, but few if any saw the hire as a home run. (Here, we called it a solid line-drive single, and our response was probably one of the more favorable ones you may have read). From those initial reactions, the temperature dipped dramatically over the next week after an unreceptive opening press conference delved into his handling of a sexual assault case at Iowa 11 years earlier and went downhill from there. A week later Alford finally apologized for his handling of that case and an uneasy truce with the local media began.
The UCLA fan base, however, remained skeptical. Throughout the regular season, even as the Bruins were piling up wins and playing a terrific brand of uptempo basketball, Pauley Pavilion remained mostly empty and quiet with only the game against Arizona (a rival that was kind enough to bring enough fans to make the arena look full) approaching a full house. Throw in the fact that the Bruins appeared to fail all of their most significant tests (on the road against Missouri; against Duke in New York City; hosting Arizona); add in a touch of concern over Alford’s misses in attempting to land a point guard in the 2014 recruiting class; sprinkle in some rash charges of nepotism over son Bryce Alford’s playing time; things still seemed a little unsettled.
Today, the Bruins are in the Sweet Sixteen. They’ve now won five straight outings against NCAA Tournament-level teams by an average of 16.4 points per game. And that’s with a Pac-12 Tournament championship win over Arizona of just four points dragging the average down. UCLA is playing great defense, enticing offense and getting tough when they need to. And, perhaps most importantly, their fans actually made the trip down the coast to come watch them play basketball last weekend in San Dieg0. They cheered for them. They were loud. They were generally happy. Oh, joyous day!
So, it took awhile, but UCLA fans are feeling rightfully better about the Alford hire. But don’t think for a second that a simple Sweet Sixteen appearance does anything to make Alford’s long-term prospects any safer. Remember, the last two coaches at this elite institution were fired, in the most recent case, after winning a conference championship and just five years removed from three straight Final Four appearances (Ben Howland); and in the former case, after advancing to five Sweet Sixteens in a seven-year period (Steve Lavin). As point guard Kyle Anderson put it succinctly after Sunday night’s win over Stephen F. Austin: “They don’t hang up Sweet Sixteens in Pauley Pavilion.” If UCLA puts up a good fight and loses to #1 Florida on Thursday night in Memphis, the average college basketball fan will think of this as a pretty good year for UCLA basketball. For Bruins fans, it will be an abject failure. They’ll point to an “easy” path to the Sweet Sixteen and voice concerns about the future of the program with Anderson almost certainly gone to the NBA and with some of his teammates perhaps on the way out as well. R egardless of what happens, this is merely year one for Alford in Westwood.
But let’s look back at what he’s accomplished in just this one year. First, he stepped into a situation where there were a lot of unhappy incumbents on the UCLA roster. Alford’s initial job, and one he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for, was re-recruiting almost all of the guys on the Bruins roster. Tony Parker was on the verge of transferring; Norman Powell had one foot out the door; and his stars – Anderson and Jordan Adams – needed to be assured that their new coach had their backs. Alford accomplished much of this before even the echoes from that disastrous first press conference faded. The next step was beginning to patch up the southern California recruiting ties that had been damaged under the previous coaching staff. While he famously struck out on local point guard Jordan McLaughlin (who chose USC, of all places), he locked up center Thomas Welsh from Loyola High School and he began to establish his credentials as a national recruiter, getting a commitment from Kevon Looney, the #12 prospect in the 2014 class as well as nods from a couple other quality big men, and also backed into a commitment from Isaac Hamilton. Later in the year he earned a commitment from 2015 point guard Aaron Holiday, brother of former prospect Jrue, who famously left UCLA after one unfulfilling season under Howland. All indications are that the Los Angeles AAU scene is now back on board with the UCLA program after hitting a rough patch at the end of Howland’s tenure.
And that’s Alford’s other really big accomplishment in his first season: changing the culture and tenor of the program. Under Howland, for all the great things he accomplished, things often didn’t seem to be much fun. Now, it is clear that these student-athletes playing for Alford are enjoying themselves. Adams and Anderson spent time on Saturday afternoon talking about the differences between the previous coaching staff and this one, and the word that was repeated the most was “freedom” – freedom to make plays; freedom to make one mistake and not immediately fear getting pulled from the game; freedom to have fun. There’s no doubt that Alford is a player’s coach in the way Howland could never have been or never even have aspired to be. Alford jokes around with his players and is able to have fun while still instilling his priorities into the program. Look at it this way: These are basically the exact same teams this season (subtract Larry Drew II and Shabazz Muhammad from last year; add Bryce Alford and Zach LaVine this year) and yet, not only are the Bruins significantly better offensively (they’re averaging almost 0.1 more points per possession this season), but they’ve also jumped 19 spots in the national defensive efficiency rankings. Yes, even with the defensive wizard Howland out of the picture, Alford has his team performing better defensively.
Again, it is just one year. And whether the excitement bumps up or slides back down following their game with Florida on Thursday night, there are going to be a lot of things that transpire over the coming months and years that will determine whether, in the long run, the Alford era at UCLA will be considered a success. But the strides that this program has taken in just one year is worth noting. Year one of the Alford era: an unmitigated success.