But in large part, I think I’ve settled on at least my best explanation for why there’s such a level of disagreement over how to assess the current situation. We need to accept something, here, as a group: there are many different ways of being a fan of a team. A bunch of people are going to want to root for their team unabashedly, believe that the team is going to have a chance to win every game, and be happy with any positive result. This is a completely acceptable way of being a fan, and probably part of the traditional definition. On the flip side, a bunch of other people are going to want to analyze every little thing about the team they follow, assess logically whether the team is playing/recruiting/being coached the way it should, and determine analytically what results are worth celebrating. Those are two absolutes, on opposite sides of the spectrum (call it heart vs. head fans, if you want), and each individual fan doesn’t need to fit in a little box. Fandom is a spectrum disorder, as far as I’m concerned, and you can peg yourself wherever you want on that long line between the two absolutes.
A big part of the disagreement about assessing UCLA basketball, at least over the last couple of years, is this conflict between process- and results-oriented people. The process-oriented folks generally look at the current state of the UCLA basketball program and see some warning signs (whether it’s from an assessment about the sustainability of UCLA’s current recruiting strategy, a judgment about the quality of defensive fundamentals in the program, or something else entirely) that make them a bit pessimistic about the future. The results-oriented folks, on the other hand, generally see the two Sweet 16s as a pretty good sign that Steve Alford still has a chance for good success at UCLA, and are waiting to see how recruiting actually goes over the next cycle or two. For some reason, and perhaps this is a glimpse into human nature, both sides seem to want to convince the other of the truth of their viewpoint.
So, how do we assess this past season? For our purposes, it boils down to two questions. First, was this season a satisfying, successful one? This can’t be discounted, because when you lose sight of whether or not a season was enjoyable, you’re basically missing out on a big part of why people follow sports at all. Even us cantankerous process-oriented people can be swayed by an exceptional result that is enjoyable and satisfying (mostly because of what it could mean for the future, but that’s quibbling).
The second question, and the more important one to us for what we want to figure out, is this: how does this season change our projection of the future of the program? Again, we’re in the business of projection, and we’re going to want to determine how successful the next few years can be based on the season we just saw, the roster management of the program, and the program’s recruiting going forward. Below, we’ll provide our assessment of this season, and then tomorrow, we’ll take a look at some of the bigger picture questions about the program.
Was This Season a Successful One?
First, the nuts and bolts: UCLA finished the season 22-14 and 11-7 in conference. The Bruins were 4th in the Pac-12, played to their seed in the conference tournament, and earned an 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament. UCLA beat 6 seed SMU in the first round of the Tournament 60-59 and then beat the pee out of UAB in the second round 92-75 to advance to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year under Steve Alford. The Bruins then lost to Gonzaga 74-62 after the offense sputtered a few times and the interior defense struggled to contain Gonzaga’s posts. From a roster perspective, UCLA lost, essentially, four starters from the previous year (Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, Travis Wear, and David Wear) and another key contributor (Zach LaVine), so it was a significantly new roster that equaled the Tournament result from last year.
UCLA’s final record went almost perfectly to our projection in the preseason. We predicted a 19-12, 11-7 record in our season prediction, and that’s precisely where UCLA finished in the regular season. So, if judging simply from our predicted record to what actually happened, UCLA performed exactly to projection. Then, we said UCLA would be a bubble team, and the Bruins probably ended up being assessed a little better than that (if we’d predicted a possible outcome, it probably would have been that UCLA would be in a play-in game, rather than safely in as an 11 seed). The Bruins then did a little bit better than we would have expected in the NCAA Tournament, beating a well-coached Mustangs team and then getting a nice matchup against the Blazers, a team they had beaten pretty handily earlier in the year, to advance to the Sweet 16. So, from that standpoint, we’d say UCLA exceeded our Tournament projections.
But as we wrote in a section of our season preview, when we were assessing the team and the roster, we weren’t going to just be assessing this team based on wins and losses, since that would actually be a little unfair considering the roster defections. Instead, we wanted to see some improvement in the processes. To quote:
“So what we’ll say is this: while it’d be difficult to expect significant improvement from year one to year two in the win column given the personnel lost, we’ll judge the progress based on player development, improved defensive buy-in, and timely, intelligent coaching decisions. Seeing progress in those areas would, along with a successful recruiting cycle, give UCLA fans a solid reason for hope over the next few seasons.
Did we see those things? From a player development perspective, it’s actually hard to assess since so few of these guys played the kinds of minutes last year that they played this year. Even Norman Powell, the senior leader this year, played considerably fewer minutes last year, and was, at best, the third option on offense. So, while each of these players produced considerably more, it’s perhaps better to use rate analysis to understand what kind of improvement we saw.
So, that’s how those three differed statistically from year to year. The eye test is a bit different (Powell was a significantly better player at the end of his senior year than he was at any point in his UCLA career, and Parker showed flashes this year that were better than anything he’d shown previously), but we’d say Alford’s statistics bear out about what we saw. He was the same basic shooter, but improved in taking care of the ball.
In terms of in-season development, the assessment is trickier, since stats don’t really help us a ton unless there is substantial difference from beginning to end (given that the quality of opponents changes from non-conference to conference), so we have to rely more on the eye test. Kevon Looney is tricky, for example, because he was a double-double machine from the minute he walked onto campus, but by the end of the year, he looked like he had run out of gas, possibly hitting the proverbial freshman wall. We’d say generally he improved a bit as a shooter, but was about the same rebounder and defender at the end of the year that he was at the beginning. Thomas Welsh clearly improved as the season went on, getting over his early season jitters as a shooter and looking decidedly more comfortable on the floor. Isaac Hamilton, also, got over early season jitters and was more comfortable as the season went on, perhaps too comfortable at times with his shot selection. Gyorgy Goloman and Noah Allen were about the same all year. Powell was a more assertive driver at the end of the year, opting more often for drives rather than jump shots, which raised his efficiency levels. Parker was up and down all year, and Alford was pretty much the same player from the beginning of the year to the end.
Defensively, UCLA opted more for a 3-2 zone as the season wore on, with Looney at the top, and that seemed to give the Bruins a little bit of a boost. Defensive fundamentals weren’t great, with Alford and Hamilton especially struggling with the basics of keeping their hands up in the zone and keeping track of the players in their part of the zone. When in man, there were often breakdowns in rotations, culminating in a few of those post-to-post passes in the Gonzaga game that were backbreakers. Defense does not seem like it’ll be a calling card of the Alford era the way it was for the early Howland years, but you’d still like to see a bit more commitment and buy-in on that end of the court, especially with Powell and Looney leaving, with those two probably the two best defenders on this year’s team.
In terms of in-season roster management and coaching decisions, our assessment is also mixed. First, we’re a little concerned that we heard all offseason that Hamilton had a chance to be a good point guard, and it was obvious this year that he’s really out of place on the ball, with a pretty weak handle and below average vision. By the end of the year, he was able to play the position and not turn the ball over every other possession, but he’s still not a real long-term option there. It was actually a shame, because as the season wore on, it seemed that Coach Alford realized that he wanted Bryce to play off the ball more, but he didn’t actually have another player who could even semi-effectively run the point. The rotations at the beginning of the year were a little questionable; as became obvious in the early going. Wanaah Bail is still a long way away from being effective at this level, and Gyorgy Goloman, while limited, has the feel, passing ability, and good enough skills to play a few minutes each half, yet Bail was ahead of Goloman in the rotation through the first month and change of the season. And, again, shot selection was an issue all year, with players often taking shots out of the flow of the offense with almost no repercussions. Defense, similarly, was an issue, with players often seemingly taking possessions off, with hands down in the zone or no commitment to fighting through screens in man. Again, virtually no repercussions (except, it should be noted, in the case of Tony Parker, who was often pulled through the end of the year when he failed to box out or play strong defense in the post). Some of that is probably due to the lack of depth on the bench, but given that this year was not going to be a real Final Four contender unless there were some truly unbelievable circumstances, pulling any of Powell, Hamilton, or Alford at points for poor defense or shot selection and putting in Allen would have sent a strong message, and perhaps instilled some discipline for future seasons.
So, in terms of the in-season coaching and player development, we’d give UCLA a mixed grade. In some areas, players improved, and in some areas, they didn’t. The tactical coaching was at times good (using a 3-2 zone, some of the offensive sets), but the strategic coaching (pulling players for poor or selfish decisions to instill discipline) was lacking. The roster probably caused a lot of this, with real limitations on the bench in terms of providing relief and discipline. Not having at least one more talented guard, especially a talented point guard, helped to prevent the offense from rising to the heights it achieved last year. Roster management is a question more for the second part of this piece, but it bears mentioning here as well, since it seemed to significantly inhibit the tactical and strategic choices Alford could make in coaching the team.
Again, though, UCLA made a Sweet 16 in a year where the Bruins probably shouldn’t have been expected to, so there’s that very real result that you need to acknowledge. In our mind, however, the season was a marginally successful one, but not a particularly satisfying one (losing by nearly 40 to Kentucky and over 30 to Utah on the road, and owning just two road wins all year does not do much for our satisfaction level). For our part, the only real importance of a Sweet 16 after a truly middling regular season is to figure out what kind of effect it could have on the future of the program. Did we see enough signs this year, from the perspective of coaching, development, roster management, and recruiting, to think that Alford has a chance to have a perennial Pac-12 contender over the next two or three years? That’s what we’ll try to answer tomorrow.
Part Two Coming Tomorrow...