Hoops Part Two: State of the Program

Mar. 31 -- We take a look at the larger state of the program and whether UCLA can be elite once again...

Obviously doing a State-of-the-Program piece about the basketball program on BRO is immediately a hot-button endeavor.

As is evident from the polarizing perspectives on BRO’s Premium Hoops Board, the UCLA fan community is divided over the State of the Program and the job Head Coach Steve Alford has done.

We understand there are those who are on the extreme ends of both arguments. There are the negative fans who generally aren’t satisfied with anything Alford has done with the program. And there are the perpetually optimistic fans who simply don’t like to hear negativity.

We feel both of those perspectives aren’t accurate or fair.

We’ve been critical of Alford in many ways, but knowing what we know, we think it’s been entirely fair criticism.

We’re going to, again, with this piece, do our best to be as accurate and fair as we can – knowing what we know and given our experience in being able to judge coaches, recruiting, programs and their potential futures.

Performance of Alford’s Program to Date

There are definitely a number of perspectives on how well Alford’s program has done on the court in his first two seasons. So much of it depends on what you expect, generally, from the UCLA program. So, let’s first get into that.

What are the appropriate expectations for the UCLA basketball program these days? Do UCLA fans have a ridiculously high level of expectation, like all the national writers always tend to point out?

Right now, in 2015, we don’t believe the expectations for UCLA basketball are unreasonable. Mostly because of a mixed bag of performance over the last 20 years, and also over the last 40 years since John Wooden strode the Pauley Pavilion floor, the expectations for the program have dramatically been reduced, contrary to the cursory national media opinion. There is a top tier of programs in today’s basketball that have the highest expectation from their programs – Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and probably Kansas. The expectations for those programs – by its fans and community – are ridiculously high. Those programs are generally expected to compete for Final Fours each and every year. UCLA, right now, isn’t in that top-flight tier of programs, and currently doesn’t have those kind of expectations.

Could UCLA be in top tier? Yes, if it started winning at a high level consistently for, say, over 7 straight years. Not many programs would even have the chance to be among those chosen four, even if it did compete for Final Fours for 7 straight years. UCLA, though, is a former blue-blood and, once you’re in the family, you can always reclaim your familial place.

But here’s where the national writers slip up: There is a big distinction being in that second tier and being an average program. UCLA is currently in the second tier, and its community has second-tier expectations. So, while UCLA isn't Kentucky, it certainly isn't Oregon State either. If UCLA goes to four straight NCAA Tournaments but doesn’t get past the second round it would be considered under-achieving at UCLA, while at OSU they’d be popping corks. So when national pundits say UCLA’s expectations are high, well, yeah, they are compared to the OSUs of the world. But that doesn't mean they're unreasonable and they're certainly not the first-tier kind of expectations those pundits claim they are. They like to continue to float the idea that UCLA has the expectations of the blue bloods, but it just simply doesn't. If Kentucky had the same kind of performance UCLA has had over the last 7 years there would be mobs at the front door of their athletic department.

UCLA, then, has shifting expectations. It lowers when the program is on a bad tear. Kentucky’s expectations never lower.

We think, given its resources, advantages and recruiting power, it reasonably should be expected that UCLA now is among the top 15 programs in the country annually. That should be the baseline. In other words, UCLA should be able to recruit and receive coaching good enough every year that the minimum achievement is that it is among the nation’s top 15 teams. Of course, some years it could dip below that expectation, but those years should be clearly balanced out by seasons that exceed it.

Many fans (some left over from the Wooden era) might think these expectations are low, but given our feel for the UCLA program and its fans, we feel this is probably in line with the expectations of the UCLA community at this time.

So, you have to judge a UCLA team’s performance in any season by that baseline. And it’s a two-prong evaluation, which is: Did they perform as a Top 15 program during the regular season, and did they reach the expectation of a top-15 program in the NCAA Tournament? That doesn’t mean merely did it make the Sweet 16 but, given the Tournament match-ups, did it perform up to the expectation of a Top 15 team in the Tournament?

Tony Parker
Using this criteria, Alford’s first two years are borderline. In 2013-2014, UCLA ended the regular season ranked #20 and #23rd in the AP and USA Today’s Coaches Poll. So, that’s a little below the Top-15 expectation, which could have been compensated for with a greater-than-expectation run in the Pac-12 Tournament, which it did, by beating Arizona in the championship game. And, of course, it could have been compensated for by a better-than-expectation performance in the NCAA Tournament, but the 2013-2014 Bruins didn’t get past the Sweet 16. On one hand you could say it was Alford’s first year in the program and that expectation should have been lowered a bit because of it. On the other hand, looking back now on it, Alford had five players who are currently on NBA rosters. Taking both into consideration you’d say the 2013-2014 season probably fell just slightly below reasonable expectation.

This past season, UCLA’s regular season was disappointing – not ranked, finishing fourth in the Pac-12, and barely getting into the NCAA Tournament with an 11 seed. The team’s Tournament performance didn’t take it past the Sweet 16, which is roughly the baseline expectation. So, overall, the 2014-2015 season’s performance was below expectation.

You have to say, though, Alford’s performance in his first two seasons hasn’t been abysmal, by any means. Either faction could make the argument that the performances support its perspective. Neither season, or both of them combined, clearly supports either side.

Any argument that uses the roster as an excuse is one you can throw out. Alford, as the head coach, is responsible for his roster. If a certain player couldn’t get into UCLA academically or went pro early that the coach was relying on, the coach should know the chances of either scenario and recruit accordingly. For every player that for whatever reason Alford didn’t have playing for him this last season you could easily make a case that he benefitted from those handed to him the year before by Ben Howland’s recruiting. Bottom line: Alford is responsible for his rosters.

There is also the issue of, regardless of the general expectation of the UCLA program, did the individual team live up to the expectation of its talent? We tend to think both of Alford’s last two season – taking into consideration both the regular season and post-season performances – were a bit below expectation in that regard. Again, looking back and acknowledging the talent the 2013-2014 team had on its roster, it’s completely fair to say it under-achieved. This season it’s far more arguable. We tend to think, though, that given the talent level it did under-achieve. There aren’t too many teams in the country that have four McDonald All-Americans on it. There aren’t many who were outside of the top 25 that have two players that will be drafted, and one as a Lottery pick.

In our mind, it wasn’t abysmally below expectation, given the talent, but just slightly. But this is all arguable (and it’s well argued on the BRO Message Board).

Coaching

A couple of weeks ago, on the message board we graded out Alford’s coaching performance and overall gave it a C since he’s been at UCLA. It breaks down this way:

Offensive Coaching: B

Defensive Coaching: C

Personnel Usage: C-

Player Development: B

Player Motivation: B

Foundation and Identity Building: C-

(Note: Not all of these factors are weighted equally, so you can’t just average them out to come up with an overall grade).

Alford’s motion offense has proven over two seasons to generally be a good one. It tends to give players a good amount of opportunity to improvise within its sets. It was particularly good in 2013-2014, when it had Kyle Anderson, a true offensive point guard, running it. This last season, there were some issues. The first was what we labeled the “Green-Light Motion” because, for much of the season, the players weren’t limited by any kind of restriction on shot selection. Anyone, in particularly Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton, were allowed to shoot whatever shot they wanted. Secondly, you could make the case that Kevon Looney, the future NBA Lottery Pick, was under-utilized offensively. UCLA for most of the season had an advantage in its front court and didn’t exploit it offensively enough. Tony Parker didn’t start to get a good amount of touches until late in the season. You could make the case that, for a good portion of the season, Norman Powell was under-utilized offensively, too. Much of UCLA’s half-court sets this year were designed to get Bryce a look as the first option, not Looney, Powell or Parker, when they were probably the more obvious option in various match-ups.

Defensively, UCLA has been fairly pedestrian the last two seasons. Not only has it suffered because it lacks athleticism, particularly in the backcourt, but the defensive scheme itself is passive and not very sophisticated. While we understand it might have to collapse and pack it in because it doesn’t have perimeter athletes who can defend, there is still a lack of hedges and post double teams in its man defense. The zone defense has proven to not be very good, and was used as just a change-up or to protect players in foul trouble. UCLA’s transition defense, too, has consistently been pretty mediocre through two seasons. Alford hasn’t been able to really light a fire under his first two UCLA teams to play defense consistently with intensity.

There were many times this season, in many games, that it was quite clear if UCLA had a better defense it very well could have won a few more games and probably played up to expectation.

The personnel usage issue is, of course, the lightning rod for debate among UCLA fans. How Alford used Bryce Alford has created quite a controversy. Bryce is a decent player, one whose offensive talents could definitely be a potentially significant contribution to any team. The issues were in Alford using Bryce at point guard, his perpetual green light, his “hero ball,” etc., and of course, Bryce’s defense. We feel that Alford is a bit blind in his use of Bryce, and that many things on this team have been instituted to unjustifiably showcase Bryce, like the team-wide green light and the lack of accountability on defense. To his credit, it seemed that Alford began to scale back the Bryce indulgence in the latter-third of the season. Bryce was used off the ball more; there were indications that Bryce’s shot selection was reined in. His defense, however, was still horrendous. While there are UCLA fans who refuse to acknowledge the Use of Bryce Factor in an assessment of Alford’s job performance, most recognize it’s an issue.

Thomas Welsh
Alford, we feel, has done a decent job in terms of player development and motivation. Norman Powell proved to be the best player on the team this season, and really blossomed under Alford after he had been constrained under Howland. You do have to give some credit to Howland for instilling many of the fundamentals we see in Powell, but give Alford credit for being the type of coach that Powell could flourish under. Despite some fans being down on Parker, we think generally that Alford has done a good job of developing him. Overall, the feeling we get out of the program is that the players are happy and like Alford, want to play for him, and he does a good job of instilling that.

One of the staples of a coach is to put his imprint on the program, build a foundation and project an image of what your program is about, an identity. While Howland clearly made some missteps at UCLA, he was excellent at doing this; he made UCLA into a defensive juggernaut. When the name “UCLA” was mentioned on ESPN, it was usually followed by a short description of tough-nosed defense. Alford has failed to do this, not being able to really establish a calling card or signature for his program. And it’s just not about having a reputation for something, it’s truly about what foundation and identity you’ve laid for the program to build on. That is all fairly muddled with Alford.

And that leads to another point: it has to be cited that the support for UCLA basketball is at or near an all-time low. Home attendance set a record low for the season. Now, not all of this is Alford’s fault. As we’ve said before, he’s had to dig out the program from the erosion due to Howland’s five-year tail-off. That kind of apathy doesn’t just disappear all of a sudden. But realistically, Alford’s program hasn’t done a great deal of digging out, but contributed to the hole. His program just doesn’t generate interest from the UCLA community, and a great deal of that has to do with not being able to create an identity with his program. Some of it has to do with Alford himself not exactly being a snappy personality. He hasn’t done a good job at trying to win over the media. It’s pretty much a bunker mentality around the program – one of an us-against-the-world, you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us mentality. Sources, too, have given us a pretty clear indication that Alford hasn’t done well in winning over the powers-that-be in the Athletic Department, as well as the big-monied donors. From what we’ve learned, there are some key individuals in both groups that aren’t pro-Alford. In the reality of being a coach at an elite, high-major college program, these are the kinds of things that can precipitate a demise.

Recruiting

It’s the life blood of any program. As any coach will repeat like a mantra: “It’s not about the Xs and Os, it’s about the Jimmys and Joes.”

More than anything we listed above that could impact Alford’s future at UCLA it’s recruiting.

We’ve been critical of Alford’s recruiting approach, as everyone knows, and have written endlessly about it. It really comes down to a simple concept, as many on the message boards have termed it: “Swinging for the Fences.” Without belaboring the details again, Alford has advocated mostly a very national recruiting approach, going after the elite players in the country, while not investing that much time in the west, which is usually UCLA’s recruiting bread and butter. The strategy got Alford Kevon Looney, but he’s also missed on a long laundry list of national prospects. While we recognize that you’re always going to miss on a good number of recruits, the hit percentage has been far too low for the program to have enough talent to be consistently successful.

In the environment of today's college basketball, successfully recruiting nationally is just not that easy to do. A few programs – Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina – can pull it off. UCLA hasn’t been able to do it, under various coaches. Heck, after Howland went to three successive Final Fours and he tried to shift his recruiting to a more national focus, he couldn’t do it.

Alford, though, believes he can. He has a recruiting strategy that greatly prioritizes national prospects, and then, for the most part, as a result waits until a player emerges as an elite prospect and then uses AAU connections to recruit him. Having a great deal of experience in watching and evaluating UCLA recruiting, we think this is a pretty risky strategy. We feel UCLA’s recruiting strength is optimizing the west, where it has a clear advantage. Instead of waiting for an elite prospect to emerge, it’s about putting in endless amounts of time evaluating west coast prospects and building relationships with them before they even become elite. Using that advantage to build a program that goes 10 or 11 deep with 3-to-4-year types is the optimum formula for recruiting success at UCLA (Again, to clarify, these are Norman Powell-level players, not Noah Allen, G.G. Goloman or Alex Olesinski).

Alford clearly doesn’t agree.

Many fans are focused on how Alford finishes off his 2015 recruiting class this spring to pass some kind of judgment on whether his approach is a good one. They’re making the recruitment of Jaylen Brown, the nation’s #1 prospect, to be the make-or-break factor of Alford’s recruiting. What we’re trying to convey is that, even if Alford gets Brown, it’s still a low-odds strategy. For instance, he got Kevon Looney, and more than likely Looney will one-and-done it and move on after this year. If he gets Brown, yes, he’ll immediately upgrade UCLA’s chances next season, but when Brown leaves after one season, which he is bound to do, Alford is again up to bat to try to get the next one-and-done. Again, only Kentucky has been able to recruit successfully with this approach.

We think the biggest factor in whether Alford has a long-term future at UCLA is not his coaching, or even his use of Bryce, but whether he shifts his recruiting paradigm. That would take a shake-up in recruiting philosophy, or on Alford’s staff, or possibly both. We’re mainly pessimistic about Alford’s future at UCLA because we doubt 1) the current strategy can be successful in the long-term, and 2) Alford will change the strategy.

As we said, the season results have been probably only slightly off reasonable expectation; the on-court product isn’t an elite one, but it’s passable. In Dave Woods’ recent review of the season, he delved into the concept of results-oriented judgment and process-oriented, which is more of an indicator of future results. In college sports, recruiting, and its approach, is really the best process-based factor in determining the success of a program. Simply, if a program has a sound, smart recruiting approach, it has a chance for sustained success, regardless of its on-the-court results to that point. As of now, Alford’s “Swinging for the Fences” approach is a low-odds venture, and is overwhelmingly the reason why we’re skeptical about Alford’s future at UCLA.

But we should say, there's still a chance that Alford could have real success at UCLA. Even if he strikes out on the remaining 2015 recruits, meaning no Jaylen Brown, no Stephen Zimmerman, and no Brandon Ingram, there's still an opportunity to build a program -- if he changes his approach. If UCLA can adjust its strategy away from targeting the national one-and-done types to targeting the three- and four-year athletes on the West Coast, he could fill out the roster in 2016 with three or four players who could provide the backbone for the program for the foreseeable future. If you were guessing about next season, without Jaylen Brown, you'd have to project it'd be somewhat similar to this past season, with Aaron Holiday and Prince Ali providing a big more backcourt depth, and Jonah Bolden hopefully providing a close approximation of Kevon Looney's contributions. Another season like this one wouldn't give Alford a ton of recruiting momentum, but it also wouldn't kill his ability to recruit. But if Alford can then add 3 or 4 good athletes in the 2016 class to fill out the roster, and you could add those to a core of a junior Thomas Welsh, sophomore Aaron Holiday, sophomore Prince Ali, and whoever else UCLA retains over the next two years, there'd be a solid foundation to work from.

The beauty for Alford is that his first two seasons at UCLA haven't, in and of themselves, destroyed his recruiting viability as a UCLA head coach -- essentially, the results of the past two seasons have neither greatly hurt nor greatly helped his cause in recruiting. Even another similar year (top four in the Pac-12, modest Tournament success) wouldn't do much either way. So there is certainly an opportunity for him, going forward, to act as if there's a blank slate, adjust his recruiting approach, and have real, UCLA-level success. College sports are so much about recruiting, and if Alford just changed his approach and focus in recruiting, he'd have a chance to win significantly at UCLA.

Can UCLA Really Be Elite Again?

On the BRO Premium Hoops Board there is an endless discussion about whether UCLA can return to prominence in college basketball. Many posters feel that UCLA can’t, and cite many reasons -- the program has too many disadvantages and the head coaching position is a tough job that not very many coaches want. These posters advocate that UCLA fans really need to re-assess their expectations, and suggest that the criticism and skepticism over Alford is a by-product of unrealistic expectations that aren’t commiserate with today’s UCLA basketball program. We don’t believe that, and that belief isn’t based on pure speculation, but on two direct examples. First, Howland brought UCLA back to prominence in his first five years, and if not for his own idiosyncracies, would probably still have the program among the elite tier in the country. That wasn’t too long ago, and really nothing has changed since to make that scenario unrealistic now. Then, secondly, there is also another prime example that supports the idea that UCLA basketball can easily return to prominence, and it resides right across the hall from the basketball offices at the Morgan Center. It’s behind that door that reads “UCLA Football.” If Jim Mora can transform what was a pretty pathetic football program into a top-15 level program it certainly can be done with the basketball program. Not only is getting it done in football a tougher proposition, but given UCLA basketball’s history, impact and reputation as a one-time blue-blood it, in fact, should be quite a bit easier of an endeavor.

Part 3 Coming Soon, where we break down the upcoming season and what factors could play a role in UCLA's potential success...

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