Steve Alford had been a college basketball coach for 23 seasons, so going into the 2013-2014 season we had some precedent to go on when trying to determine how the Bruins would look.
When a program installs a new coach, though, you never really know how this new incarnation is going to manifest itself on the court.
Probably the aspect of Alford's coaching we could safely anticipate was the motion offense. He's been running it for decades after learning it at the hip of Bobby Knight and there was no reason to expect that would change.
What was interesting, though, was that Alford traditionally didn't play transition basketball. He didn't play particularly slow, but mounds of evidence showed that he didn't play particularly fast either – and didn't generally try to get his team out in transition. In fact, USC's first-year coach Andy Enfield, when both he and Alford were on the recruiting trail last summer, uttered those immortal words: "If you want to play slow, go to UCLA."
Going into the season UCLA's staff, however, was saying that UCLA would be a transition, fast-break team. They were telling the media that, and telling recruits that.
Now, we've been down this road before, with many programs across the country (Arizona). Many programs (Arizona) profess to be a running program, and tell recruits that, but those programs (Arizona) don't ever prove to be, either to the naked eye or statistically. What's an interesting phenomenon, though, is that many recruits actually perceive those programs (Arizona) to be a running program, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
So there was then a little skepticism toward UCLA actually turning into a transition team, and understandably.
Alford had always mostly employed a man-to-man defense, but given UCLA's personnel, whose individual defensive abilities we were all very familiar with, there was some doubt that Alford would be able to use mostly man all season.
Outside of tactics, there was also the question of whether Alford would be able to get a team – made up mostly of Ben Howland's players and recruits – to play for him. Many first-year head coaches go through a purging process with the leftover players because they just aren't "their guys."
A great deal was made of Alford being able to "recruit" the returning players and keep them at UCLA. Really, in our opinion, that was basic stuff. First, Kyle Anderson wasn't going anywhere, because transferring would mean sitting out a year – and one more year further away from going pro. It was probably the same mindset, to a certain extent, for Jordan Adams. Alford did succeed in keeping Tony Parker, who was considering transferring, but there were some factors that worked to keep Parker in a Bruin uniform. Give Alford some credit, yes, but not the heaps of credit that's commonly been doled out for this.
It then didn't help that UCLA started the season with a very soft, cupcake, non-conference schedule. Pauley Pavilion was sometimes half-full and subdued.
It also didn't help that the most consistent element of the team's play – for a majority of the season – was its inconsistency of effort. If you're a fan and you're skeptical of the team, the new coach and the program, and you come out to a half-empty Pauley Pavilion and see a team that clearly only played hard for about 10 of the 40 minutes it wouldn't inspire you to come back.
Then there was the knock on Alford that he was showing favoritism toward his son, Bryce Alford.
It'd be an understatement to say that Alford, then, had a bit to make up for in the 2013-2014 season.
By the end of the season, you wouldn't say that he vanquished all of the issues and concerns, but he did overcome many of them.
First, offensively, UCLA actually did play transition ball. They proved to be one of the best fastbreak teams in college basketball. The coaching staff said they would, and unlike some programs (Arizona), the team actually did. UCLA quickly built a rep as a fast-break, up-tempo team. Game announcers were repeating it over and over, even as quickly as by mid-season. It didn't taken a long time, but you could say that Alford's UCLA program now is branded to a degree as an up-tempo type. It made Enfield's initial comment about UCLA not playing fast one of the biggest mis-statements in college basketball this season – and incredibly ironic, too, because Enfield's USC team this season fell into the category of a program that professed to run but didn't.
Alford's half-court offense, too, was quite successful. UCLA's offense, it was safe to say, was one of the best in the country. Of course, you have to attribute a great deal of that success to having Anderson as your point guard. But it was Alford's offense that was the vehicle for Anderson's success. It was at times a thing of beauty, when Anderson and his teammates were executing at an optimum. There seemingly wasn't much of a transition time in which the players needed to get comfortable with it. They seemed instinctive playing in it from the outset. It was a good balance between some established sets but also giving the players the freedom to create on their own. It clearly affected Norman Powell's game, with Powell looking so much more comfortable in Alford's offense than in Howland's strict offensive sets. Even Adams, who you think would benefit more from the more structured screening of, say, Howland's sets, to give him an open look, was quickly very comfortable. Even though Alford's offense was more free and less structured, there were plenty of screens set to get Adams an open look.
As the season progressed, there were developments and growth in the offense. Obviously all of the players continued to get more comfortable so it did function more seamlessly. But Alford definitely continued to institute wrinkles in the offense throughout the season – wrinkles that exploited the offensive strengths of the players as well as introducing new patterns and sets in the motion that were very successful. It was so different and refreshing to see UCLA taking advantages of mismatches, posting up Anderson or Adams when they were guarded by smaller defenders. The offense exploited the offensive strengths of the Wears, getting them catches from mid-range and three-point range. There was a high-low triangle, specifically introduced in the Pac-12 Tournament against Oregon, and five out-none-in set that utilized stacked screens to free up Adams, and create back-door opportunities. By the Pac-12 Tournament, the half-court offense had evolved into one of the prettiest we've seen at UCLA in a very long time.
If you were a recruit, the prospect of playing in UCLA's offense that featured both an up-tempo, fast-break element and a very player-friendly, half-court motion offense has to be very appealing.
Alford clearly made significant points with his offense, not only as a selling point for recruits, but a selling point to fans.
Defensively it wasn't quite as much of a success story. Alford employed a sagging man, and then switched it up with, well, a sagging zone. It was clearly compensating for the fact that UCLA didn't have the kind of athletes that could play effective man defense, and that the roster was fairly tall and long, and that length could be more effective in a zone. It was also a calculated gamble that, generally, there weren't many really great outside shooting teams in college basketball, and specifically on UCLA's schedule, so clogging the middle and making opposing teams shoot an excessive amount of threes made some sense. The season began with the mix of man and zone being, well, pretty poor. The man was inactive and lazy. Bruin defenders commonly just stopped as soon as they ran into a screen. They seldom trailed over the top of the screen but tried to dip below it, which was generally the lazy – and ineffective – way to defend a shooter. Close-outs were, for the most part, bad. The team's help-defense was particularly bad. And to top it all off, the Bruins tended to be very poor in getting back on transition defense. Teams would commonly get out behind UCLA's defense or run right by it on its way to an easy lay-in.
What was most distressing was that there didn't seem to be an emphasis on defense. Alford repeated to the press that it was a big issue with the team and that they were emphasizing it in practice, but the effort and intensity didn't seem to change.
As we said, this team didn't have a great deal of good individual defenders. Powell was clearly the best, but beyond him, there weren't any real good man defenders. And they clearly weren't inspired to play defense. So Alford definitely had an almost season-long issue of trying to compensate for a roster-full of poor defenders who seemingly didn't have much interest in playing defense. By the end of the season, the defense did improve; the team, for the most part, was sustaining more effort for longer periods in a game – perhaps 25 minutes per game rather than just 10 or so, like in the first half of the season. The defensive energy improved some, definitely feeding off the Bruins excellent execution on the offensive end. But you would never say that, for the season, UCLA had even a solid defense or that its players had really found themselves defensively or a consistent defensive intensity. You have to give Alford credit for getting them to play harder defensively, but it looked like it was more a case of them feeding off the energy they were generating on offense. But then, since it was Alford's offense, you could say he should get credit for that, too.
As we said throughout the season, particularly in its first half, this team didn't really have an identity. It certainly didn't have one defensively. And it certainly looked like the season was on the brink of a collapse when the Bruins lost at Pullman to Washington State by 18 points on the regular season's last road trip.
But UCLA executed its offense to precision in the Pac-12 Tournament and, seemingly, this team got an identity.
Once the team started to play so flawlessly on offense, and the players were clearly inspired to play – on both ends of the court – the team started to play to its potential. And really for the first time in the season, fans were fully ready to get behind the team and Alford.
So, you have to give Alford an A grade for his offense, its conception and the week by week game-planning. The defense, well, probably a C, in terms of its concept and effectiveness in getting the players to buy in, and playing a defense that best matched the talent (we'll get into that further). But again, we might give him a bit of a pass because, candidly, there might not have been much else he could do defensively with the lack of athleticism he inherited on the roster.
So, while conceptually and tactically Alford had a good season as a coach, the in-game coaching presented some questions. The subbing pattern was the element that presented the biggest questions, and, of course, playing time allocation.
Alford got into a standard subbing pattern that he stuck to pretty religiously in every game. Bryce Alford and Zach LaVine would sub in at about the 14-minute mark, regardless of the flow of the game or the whether a certain player was hot or not. With that substitution, with the freshmen taking over the backcourt, Alford then went consistently to a zone defense. Overall, there were times the subbing and defensive move were fine, but other times they weren't. Our issues with it were mostly that, by subbing in two freshmen into your backcourt at the same time, it doubly reduced the effectiveness of the guard play on both sides of the court. Then, it was clear that Alford instituted the zone to compensate for the inability of the freshmen to play man, particularly Bryce Alford. It also took away probably the primary value of playing both man and zone, and that's getting the opposing offense to shift from one offense to the other, and keeping them off-balance. Doing it so predictably took away that element.
Also, there were games when Powell for the first 6 minutes was one of the best players on the floor – and he would come out of the game. Taking a hot player out just because you've standardized your subbing pattern doesn't seem very sophisticated, or savvy.
The subbing at 14 minutes then put the ball in the hands of Bryce Alford and moved Anderson to essentially a forward position. He still touched the ball and did initiate the offense at times, but not as consistently as when he was initiating it as the point guard.
As we said, there were times when the subbing and defensive change with the two freshmen were effective and actually provided a boost. But for the most part it didn't. The question is: Why did Bryce Alford and LaVine have to sub at the same time in every game? Why couldn't how much time they spent on the floor together been minimized, so that you were giving your starters the breather they needed but the freshmen were then helped by having as much experience around them when they were each in the game?
We truly don't have an answer to that question.
The issue of favoritism has to be addressed here (Well, perhaps not favoritism, but maybe more aptly put as an inaccurate evaluation of Bryce Alford's abilities). The on-going question is whether Bryce Alford was given an excessive amount of playing time in relation to his abilities (and we addressed that pretty in-depth in the Post-Season Analysis, Part 1), and whether the standardized subbing pattern Alford employed all season very well had something to do with trying to mask Bryce Alford's defensive liabilities to get him more court time.
Again, we don't have an answer to the question.
In terms of the topic we brought up earlier in this article – whether a new coach can get the players he inherits to buy in – you'd have to say that Alford mostly was successful. They didn't necessarily buy in on defense, most of the season playing pretty uninspired defensively. But the players were clearly won over by Alford and wanted to play for him. Alford created a positive, player-friendly atmosphere in the program, which was readily welcomed after the sturm and drang of Howland's program. Perhaps the only hiccup was Alford's relationship with LaVine, which we elaborated on in Part 1. You'd have to take some points away for not getting the best out of who was clearly the most talented player with the most upside on the roster. And to be blunt, after Howland, even Eeyore as the head coach might have been able to create a better, more player-friend atmosphere. But still, give credit where credit is due – and that would be Alford for the most part creating a positive and player-friendly environment.
Tactically and scheme-wise, the jury is in on Alford's offense. If he can get the puzzle pieces to plug into it, namely a talented point guard with exceptional vision, it clearly proved to be a very good scheme. Defensively, Alford's coaching ability is still uncertain. When it comes to getting another coach's players to buy in, the toughest side of the court is definitely the defensive side. We don't know, either, if the sagging man and passive zone were just complete compensating moves for the lack of good defensive players on the roster. Alford, in his past head coaching stops, has played mostly man defense, and done it effectively. And we do know that Assistant Coach Ed Schilling has a rep as being a very good defensive coach, particularly a good zone defensive coach. Bottom line: the defensive jury is still out.
The State of the Program and the Future
So, what does, really, the Alford's UCLA program need to make it an elite program and sustain that status for a long period of time? What does Alford have to do to accomplish this? Like we said, he made strides this year on the court. He is now far enough way from Iowa-gate for it to be fading into the rearview mirror. He is actually poised to have a chance to get it done.
Let's go back over the check list of things he's accomplished:
Established what is perceived as a player-friendly environment in his program.
Branded UCLA as an up-tempo team that gets out and runs.
Installed a very appealing half-court offense that exploits a player's strengths.
Ultimately got the team to play for him, play up to expectation and reach the Sweet 16.
Then here are some things that didn't quite make the grade:
-- The situation with the LaVines. On one hand, you can't make everyone happy. On the other, it's a bit of a black mark, even if it wasn't entirely, or even mostly, Alford's fault.
-- Backcourt recruiting. It was a big miss. UCLA pursued various 2014 point guards and struck out. Perhaps the guy who would have been the best fit was right under their nose, Robert Cartwright, but they attempted to recruit over him and missed, which UCLA coaches can be prone to do when they get seduced by the possibility of UCLA recruiting nationally. So now UCLA has a pretty sizeable hole at point guard for a while.
And here are some things on Alford's To-Do List, and almost all are recruiting related: -- Get UCLA to play better defense, with more sustained effort and intensity. That includes not only recruiting players better suited to play defense but also getting the players to buy-in to playing defense. -- Get an immediate fix to the backcourt/point guard problem for the 2014/2015 season. Getting a graduate transfer that can come in and start immediately at UCLA would be a huge accomplishment, and go a long way to make up for missing on 2014 point guards.
-- Then there is the longer-term problem at point guard. The elephant in the room is Bryce Alford and whether he'll be UCLA's starting point guard for the next three years. We've heard that Alford legitimately wants to find an elite level point guard, one that would play over Bryce. Only time will tell on that issue. He has definitely recruited point guards – in the 2014 and 2015 class – so it seems to be true. The presence of Bryce Alford has impeded some point guard recruiting; we know this to be true. Whether it does in the future remains to be seen. Regardless of what side of the argument you're on, whether you believe Bryce Alford can't play at UCLA's level at point guard or he can, everyone can agree that UCLA needs an elite level point guard to win at the highest level, and there is some question, even from Bryce Alford's biggest supporters, whether he is that. The only way out of this for Alford we can see is for him to bring in an elite point guard and give him a legitimate opportunity to win the point guard spot, or the specter of nepotism, whether it's true or not, will dog recruiting and the program for the next three years, and maybe even beyond.
-- Upgrade athleticism. UCLA's defense more or less stunk this year primarily because the team was pretty unathletic. UCLA's rebounding was poor because of, primarily, a lack of athleticism. UCLA's offense stagnated at times because it lacked the athletes that could take their defenders off the dribble. It's all about athleticism. Every year it proves out in the NCAA Tournament – athleticism wins the day. Recruiting under Alford in the first cycle, for the class of 204, tended to emphasize shooting and scoring over athleticism.
-- Emphasize local recruiting. We don't just mean with just lip service, but actually emphasize it. That means spending a great deal of time building relationships with young recruits when they're freshmen and sophomores so the ones that do develop into UCLA level prospects as seniors will be lined up to sign their NLI. That takes time, and a budget, and it's been proven over and over that UCLA has to be very prudent in the time/money it spends – and wastes – recruiting nationally compared to the investment in time/money in the west.
-- As we detailed out in a lengthy message board post the other day, UCLA needs to also emphasize three- and four-year guys over the one-and-done types. It takes discipline because the one-and-dones are shiny toys while the three- and four-year guys commonly have something that's not quite developed yet. In today's college basketball, the elite prospects that leave after one or two years are effectively decimating programs. Comparatively, UCLA could be very successful, as in Final-Four successful, if it built a program around three- and four-year guys -- say, always keeping 9 or so on the roster and recruiting to that end. This way there will always be experienced seniors and juniors as well as continuity. And then just sprinkle in some early-NBA-jumpers here and there. UCLA is one of the few schools that has a chance to be able to make this formula work.
Many posters on the message board bemoaned this season that the UCLA basketball program had fallen so out of favor with its fans that it would take a long time to fill up Pauley Pavilion again. But we've always been of the opinion that if you put a good product on the floor UCLA fans would come back almost instantaneously. It's too bad that UCLA wasn't able to play a game at Pauley Pavilion after the Pac-12 Tournament because in light of the way the Bruins played in those three games it probably would have come close to filling every seat for any subsequent game in Pauley.
In other words, UCLA's program has the potential to always be what we imagine it to be. If you put a good product on the floor the fans will fill Pauley. A good product, combined with all of UCLA's natural advantages, including the fact it sits on a huge recruiting base, will always give UCLA a chance to recruit well. If it puts a good product on the floor and recruits well, the UCLA program will take its rightful place among the elite programs in the country very, very quickly. After Steve Lavin decimated the program, Ben Howland turned it around in three years, and Steve Alford, given the strides he made with the program this season, has a chance to again establish UCLA as an elite program just as quickly.
Even with some fallout from a disappointing loss to Florida in the Sweet 16, and the team not playing with intensity or focus for a majority of the season, right now the program has a feeling of being on the upswing. Go figure. There must be something relatively special about UCLA basketball.