Utah Confirms This is UCLA's Style of Play

Jan. 4 -- The newest debacle, losing to Utah 71-39, further reinforces that UCLA's historically horrible performances aren't the result of players defying their coach but it's the style of play of choice...

At this stage it’s probably futile to do a review of a UCLA basketball game. For one thing, how many people are actually reading this?

Yeah, that’s about as many people who were probably watching UCLA get trounced by Utah, 71-39.

Just to get some of the milestones out of the way: The 15 points UCLA scored in the first half was the third worse scoring half in UCLA history, and in the last few weeks that is now three of the worst four halves ever. The 39 points for the game is UCLA’s lowest since 1967. There are probably other dubious records being broken but it’s depressing to look them up.

While many might think it’s getting old belaboring the problems of this team, it still needs to be belabored. It feels like we have a responsibility, at this stage, to not let any of this embarrassment go unnoticed or blameless; it might be the only way something eventually good comes out of it.

UCLA showed again that it’s a very bad basketball team, and a very poorly coached one.

At this point, we all know the player issues, their strengths and weaknesses. How each player is performing is nothing that astonishing, really, given what we know about each of them.

What is quite astounding, though, is the coaching. This team is badly coached on every possible level and aspect of coaching, and it’s really the biggest and most stunning development of the season.

Fundamentals – I’ve seriously never seen a more fundamentally insipid college basketball team. That includes the teams of Steve Lavin. There are things that this team does you wouldn’t allow your 9-year-old peewee rec team to get away doing. Jumping to pass. No jump stops. Driving to nowhere. One-handed scoop passes. Horrible screening. Almost non-existent blockouts. The worse close-outs ever (which include flying out-of-control at three-point shooters). Not in a defensive stance. Reaching and not moving their feet. No hedges. Dipping under screens instead of trailing. Very little defensive help besides just trying to slap away a ball. You could go on and on. It’s strange that a coach who has been around 25+ years is seemingly fine with all of this.

Tactics – The most shocking thing is that this isn’t a team ignoring the tactics of its coach. What you’re seeing – going for quick shots and driving to nowhere – is Steve Alford’s offensive tactics. It’s not a case that players are taking bad shots against the wishes of the coach. It’s clear that anyone shooting any shot they want is, again, the coach’s tactics. Driving to nowhere is the game plan. It’s really astonishing that you have a potential Lottery pick in your front court in Kevon Looney and Alford won’t create a set play to get him a touch around the basket. Yes, there are times when the team does try to execute an offense, with movement away from the ball, screens and passing. But it’s so infrequent. An element of Alford’s offense is clearly to allow for freedom but the freedom has gotten out of control because there doesn’t seem to be any limitations on it.

Accountability – This is kind of related to tactics because you don’t necessarily need too much accountability if the game plan is to allow your players to shoot or drive whenever they want. What could you hold them accountable to, then? Defense, though, is about effort and this team provides very little defensive effort – but with no consequences. So, really, there is no accountability on either the offensive or defensive side of the court. At this point it’d be very interesting to hear what Coach Alford holds over the players’ heads to motivate them. There has been almost no moment in any game this year when a player was yanked for doing something really irresponsible or selfish – or against the coach’s wishes, because this style is his wish.

But wait. There is no way Steve Alford has coached like this for over 25 years and gotten away with it. He wouldn’t have lasted this long. Heck, he’d get replaced as the coach on that peewee rec team. So, why now? What’s changed with Steve Alford?

We can only speculate, but we feel this has happened because of a few different factors.

• Alford has never really allowed this much freedom in his motion offense. He played a slower, more possession-oriented type of game at New Mexico. His offensive strategy – allowing the players more freedom – definitely changed when he came to UCLA. More than likely he feels he has to project an image of a program that gets up and down, runs, breaks and allows for offensive freedom if he’s going to be able to recruit at UCLA. Alford, in recruiting, mostly has targeted the elite national prospects, and he probably feels he needs to offer this type of offense to attract them (Ironically, the elite national prospects in the 2015 class UCLA is recruiting are probably watching intently how bad this style is for Looney this year). Probably, too, with the program coming off a slower, more deliberate, structured offense of Ben Howland, Alford probably heard enough that it was now time for a looser offensive style. Why is it only looking this way now and didn’t last year? A year ago, he had some players who were very seasoned and sophisticated in their basketball I.Q. and fundamentals. It’s clear that those players, led by Kyle Anderson, chose to execute Alford’s halfcourt offense. It wasn’t like Alford held their feet to the fire to do it; they just did it because they had been taught to execute an offense and naturally did it well. Take those players out of the equation and you now have a collection of players that predominantly don’t want to execute an offense within a team concept and want to improvise one-on-one.

• There isn’t a good point guard on the team. Bryce Alford tries to function as the point guard but he, first, isn’t one, and would be a shooting guard with very little point guard feel for the game. As we’ve said, Kyle Anderson was a huge factor in last year’s offense. The staff purported, after Anderson left, that Alford’s offense didn’t need a point guard, which is laughable now watching this team without Anderson. A good point guard that tried to set up teammates and operate the offense would make a huge difference. Bryce Alford just too often looks for shots himself and, most importantly, doesn’t have a point guard’s feel or approach. There is so much freedom in this offense that when you have a point guard like Anderson who wants to execute the offense, that’s what you get. But also when you have a point guard that wants to shoot or drive to nowhere, that’s also what you get.

• We have to believe, too, that much of this change in Steve Alford is about his son. The total freedom on offense, the no accountability on defense, is probably done with the intention of showcasing Bryce while also masking his deficiencies. If you’re going to give Bryce a green light that allows him to take bad shots, it would be a double-standard if you chastised other players for taking bad shots. Thus, the entire team has a green light. If you allow Bryce to play defense casually, to avoid claims of favoritism you have to allow Isaac Hamilton to play with little or no effort defensively.

It’s really a confluence of factors that have come together. A Perfect Alford-at-UCLA-with-Bryce Storm, if you will.

What was probably the most interesting aspect of the Utah game was that UCLA, for a short stretch in the first half, the players, in their infinite freedom, decided to execute on offense and, on defense, in their zone, actually got some stops. It was also a period in which Bryce was mostly on the bench. Without Bryce, the players on the court tried to execute the offense on every possession and, in the zone, UCLA actually got a few stops, and that was with Gyorgy Goloman and Noah Allen in the game. The score was 21-15 and, at that point, there was actually a little glimmer of hope that UCLA had settled down from its five-game stretch of sloppy, reckless play. But when Bryce came in a funny thing happened: without Bryce even taking a shot, his teammates went back to playing selfishly. It was almost a conditioned reaction to playing alongside Bryce.

Bryce went 0 for 10, and 0 for 4 from three, in this game and scoreless. During the five-game losing streak, in which UCLA played against decent to very good opponents, he’s 17 of 64, which is 24% from the field. He didn’t make a three pointer on the mountain road trip, and is 2 of 22 in the last three games, which is an 11% clip.

It’s difficult to blame Bryce for any of this. He is what he is. And he’s doing what he’s being allowed to do by his coach. It’s just a very poor job of coaching.

Looking ahead, Bryce will come out of his slump at some point to some degree. He is clearly a better shooter than these stats indicate, even if many of his shots are still bad ones. That might give UCLA a little relief and help them win some games down the stretch of the Pac-12 season. Hamilton will keep jacking it up without conscience, as will a desperate Norman Powell, whose game is breaking down and his NBA stock is plummeting while he tries to get his in this mess. Looney will continue to try to drive to the basket instead of posting up. But, like we said, the astonishing thing is that this is Steve Alford’s offense. We haven’t seen any adjustments, or different use of personnel or benchings, because this is the intended style of play. Perhaps Alford will realize that he might need to play a zone a bit more, and perhaps he’ll get Looney and Tony Parker more touches in the paint a bit, like they did for a short stint in the Utah second half. But we now can easily see there isn’t going to be any kind of profound change in approach or tactics. It’s a free-for-all. Like we said before the losing streak, UCLA will play better on different nights when it makes its bad shots because, astoundingly and very sadly, this approach isn’t going to change since there clearly is no recognition that this isn’t a sound formula for successful basketball.

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