Spring is Critical For Alford's Program

Dec. 26 -- Finishing off the 2015 class this spring could be a make-or-break moment for Steve Alford's program...

The UCLA basketball program right now, in the wake of the Kentucky beatdown, is pretty dismal. That makes you start to look down the road and hope things will get better – but also makes you realize they might not.

Prince Ali
So, without even getting into the schemes and coaching, in terms of just personnel and talent we thought we’d look at the state of the program, and we’ve come upon the conclusion: There is quite a bit UCLA Head Coach Steve Alford is going to have to accomplish in recruiting in the very near-term – say, 2015 recruiting and 2016 recruiting –to turn around the program.

If you analyze it closely, too, and play out the scenarios, the window for opportunity for Alford isn’t a big one.

If the current season ends up going down the road we anticipate, and it’s considered a clearly unsuccessful one, Alford would have to answer with, first, a strong season in 2015-2016. But one successful season wouldn’t give him much of a reprieve going forward; we anticipate that he’d have to sustain success in 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 to get comfortably through the first informally probationary four years of his tenure. Even just a couple of bad years among the first four would be tough to overcome.

If you take the level of talent on the current team as a basis, UCLA would have to improve considerably next season and in 2016 and 2017 to be clearly successful. If UCLA puts about the same amount of talent on the floor as this season – or, horror, less – there could be a complete program meltdown, from worsening attendance (if that’s possible) to no buzz to sell to recruits, and a profound damaging of the UCLA basketball brand.

It would have to be a worry for UCLA, and for its fans, that any four-year scenario like this could make it too difficult for the program to dig out from under it all. The thing is, it’s not really just a four-year scenario. UCLA basketball has been trending down since 2009-2010, when Ben Howland posted only the third losing season in the program’s history. That’s working on six seasons right now. There were a couple of reprieve years, but they weren’t good enough to truly make up for the downward trend. A reprieve year is exactly what it implies – that it just puts the trend on hold. By nature, they’re not enough, like last season when the program went to the Sweet 16. Doing that every third season isn’t going to be enough at UCLA. Heck, doing that every year isn’t ultimately going to be enough (witness Steve “Sixteen” Lavin).

We’ve always said the UCLA basketball program is pretty resilient. That if you win, “they’ll” come – fans and recruits. After Lavin, in fact, ran the program into the ground, it only took Howland three seasons to get UCLA to a Final Four – and subsequently put rear-ends in Pauley seats and restore the luster of the UCLA brand. But the question is: How many years of a downward trend does it take to seriously damage that resiliency? How many years of mediocre UCLA basketball does it take before today’s recruits actually forget that UCLA was an elite college program? We’re at six years and counting. And it’s something that UCLA fans and, you’d have to hope, the UCLA powers-that-be, don’t want to find out.

So, while you might think Alford has some time, given how this season is trending, and reasonably projecting the expected personnel on the roster for the next couple of years, he probably doesn’t.

Jonah Bolden
In analyzing the personnel for 2015-2016, UCLA is almost certainly going to lose Kevon Looney to the NBA after this season, and Norman Powell to graduation. That’s UCLA’s two best players on the current struggling team. Now, of course, the remaining players should improve some, but you’d have to think not enough to take this team from what is now to a top ten squad on their improvement alone. A talent upgrade from this season would be needed, and that’s a tough proposition given UCLA’s current state of 2015 recruiting. The backcourt will add freshmen Aaron Holiday and Prince Ali, and that will help a bit with depth. Ali very well could replace Powell in the starting lineup, and that would be a bit of downgrade. It’s not that Ali isn’t talented; we’ve believe he is. But it’s going from a senior Powell to a freshman Ali. Holiday is talented, but still more of a shooting guard than a point guard, which is the position he hopes to project to, and that absolutely means he has very little chance at supplanting a junior Bryce Alford at the point guard position. Holiday will then provide some needed depth and probably take over the back-up point guard minutes from Hamilton. Defensively that would be an improvement but offensively a junior Hamilton compared to a freshman Holiday, who isn’t a true point guard, is probably a wash. There’s also Jonah Bolden, the current freshman who was deemed academically ineligible but is currently enrolled in school. From what we’ve heard, he’s on track to be eligible next season, but we’ve also heard some mild rumblings he could opt to play professionally overseas. We’ll count him on the roster at this point, until we hear anything substantive otherwise. Even though there are those that say Bolden is a small forward, Bolden will probably slot into the power forward spot with the departure of Looney (we’ve now completely learned our lesson in believing what position anyone else projects for UCLA players and now absolutely trust our own evaluation ability). A freshman Bolden probably is a bit of a downgrade over a freshman Looney. The centers, Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh, will have improved, and hopefully UCLA’s bench of Gyorgy Goloman and Wanaah Bail will have improved.

So, all in all, given this listed personnel, you’d have to say the 2015-2016 Bruins wouldn’t be much better than this season’s version. It would need an injection of talent. Alford is currently recruiting a number of elite 2015 recruits who have decided to wait until spring before they make their decision. They are the nation’s #1 recruit, small forward Jaylen Brown; five-star wing Brandon Ingram; and five-star posts Ivan Rabb, Stephen Zimmerman and Carlton Bragg. Alford flat-out needs to pull out some of these recruits, or at the very least Brown, if he hopes to have a chance to be successful in 2015-2016. Brown is an immediate-impact kind of guy -- like Looney he would probably be considered one of the top five freshmen in the country. But taking away Looney and adding Brown gets you to just about where the current team is now – and not enough to comfortably project it as being improved over this year’s team. The recruit UCLA has probably the best chance of getting on that 2015 spring list is Stephen Zimmerman, and he would definitely bring some talent to the roster. But we think Zimmerman is more of a 3-4/year guy than a one-and-doner type, and would probably struggle to supplant either Bolden or senior Parker/sophomore Welsh in the starting lineup. He would definitely help with the talent level off the bench and that’s significant, but not enough to, again, project the 2015-2016 team to be substantially improved. Now, if UCLA could get Rabb, who would immediately be good enough to come in and make a huge impact on the frontcourt, and Brown, then that’s about the standard of recruiting success UCLA needs in spring to make the 2015-2016 team clearly better.

We’d expect UCLA will be looking for other 2015 prospect in spring, too. But anyone else that would be available we doubt would clearly be good enough to make a major impact in 2015-2016.

Stephen Zimmerman
Recruiting to sustain success beyond the 2015-2016 season is also a key factor here. And that’s the thing about Brown or Rabb: it’s about as certain that they’ll be one-and-done as Looney was going into this season, and probably moreso. We’ve heard that, like with Looney, barring anything completely unforeseen, the set plan is for both to play one year of college and go to the NBA. So, if UCLA did get Brown or Rabb, or both, it would probably just be good for a one-year relative upgrade.

What it could do for Alford, though, is a couple of things: It would give him a chance to post a good season, which quickly counters this season, and another one-year reprieve. It also would give him some credibility in recruiting going forward, making UCLA a more viable option for future elite prospects. So, while getting Brown (and/or Rabb) might just be a one-year upgrade on the court, it would be something Alford could parlay into some sustainable recruiting power.

But realistically, at this point, getting Brown, Rabb, Zimmerman, Ingram or Bragg doesn’t look too promising. From what we hear on each of their recruitments, UCLA isn’t leading for any of them, and would have to do some miraculous recruiting by spring to make any of them realistic scenarios.

As we’ve maintained for a long time, the way to sustain success at UCLA is by building a foundation of high-major players that aren’t one-and-doners but that will stay in your program for 3 to 4 years. Guys like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Darren Collison, Arron Afflalo, Mike Roll, Alfred Aboya, and Lorenzo Mata. When Howland first arrived at UCLA, he recognized this and did an excellent job of evaluation and recruiting to bring in a strong, steady stream of this type of player – and those players were the foundation for his three Final Four runs. Alford has had two chances in recruiting so far to do this, the 2014 and the 2015 classes, and has done so only marginally. Welsh, Holiday and Ali definitely fall into this category, but it’s still questionable whether Hamilton, Bail and Goloman are of this caliber. Plus, Alford has at least three open scholarships on the roster that he easily could have filled with this level of prospect over the course of the 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes (and we’ve gone down the list of them endlessly so no need to re-list them here). The problem Alford now finds himself in with these types of recruits is that most of the time it takes a couple of years for them to develop into good players, so Alford, even if he pulled out one or two of them this spring, is still running late on getting them developed in a reasonable time frame to make an impact on establishing that foundation. Plus, getting those types of recruits in spring looks to be a longshot right now.

Zimmerman, actually, shapes up to being a pretty critical recruit. He probably is more of a 3/4-year guy than a one- or even two-and-done, and he'd be a huge get as a 3/4-year guy since he'd probably be able to contribute immediately and then have a considerable impact by his sophomore season.

As a result of what is looking like it could be a poor season, spring recruiting, then, is shaping up to being highly critical for Alford. He needs to upgrade his talent for the 2015-2016 season with some of the five-star players UCLA is still recruiting. If he can do that, and manage a successful season next year it rights the ship a bit, gives him a reprieve year, and also gives him credibility and momentum to parlay that into success with future five-star prospects. Just as importantly, he needs to significantly improve and step up his recruitment of 3/4-year guys, and fill out any remaining spots with players who can help cement the foundation. Bottom line, given where the program is now, recruiting this spring could be a make-or-break type of moment for Alford’s program.

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