UCLA put the icing on its crap cake of a season on Wednesday night, losing 95-71 to USC in a pummelling that was eerily reminiscent of, if more extreme than, the two pummelings UCLA received at the hands of the Trojans already this season. That it was in no way a surprise that UCLA lost by 24 points to the Trojans (our Rob Carpentier almost predicted the margin exactly) is perhaps the most dismal aspect of the season -- how low has UCLA basketball sunk when USC wins the three matchups between the two teams by a combined 57 points?
The season is now over. The NIT has never accepted a team with below a .500 record, and UCLA sits at 15-17. The CBI could attempt to take the Bruins, but UCLA accepting a CBI bid would produce arguably a bigger PR hit than even the bad season UCLA just had. It would be the kind of headline that writes itself -- storied basketball program accepts bid to irrelevant post-season tournament. No, the season should be completely, firmly over, and the Bruins should not accept any postseason tournament if offered.
The question really is: what should UCLA do now? UCLA finished disastrously over the last month of the season, losing six of seven games in a run where the Bruins absolutely needed to flip that result in order to make the NCAA Tournament. That UCLA didn't even come close, and that, in fact, the Bruins gave some of their worst efforts of the season over the last four weeks, speaks volumes about the state of the program. If, in his third year at the helm with many of his own players, the head coach can't get the team to buy in during a stretch of must-win games like that, and then the season gets punctuated by a third double-digit loss to USC in the Pac-12 Tournament where UCLA isn't even competitive, what is the rationale for maintaining the course? This course has clearly led the Bruins astray.
And lest you think we are simply saying the players didn't play hard, it also was as if the coaches disengaged from the season as well a few weeks ago. UCLA has trotted out some of its worst game plans of the season over the last few weeks, and on Wednesday, the Bruins attempted to go big-big against one of the most athletic teams in the Pac-12, and then also attempted to zone one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country. Naturally -- of course -- UCLA started out in an 11-0 hole. It didn't require a scouting genius to realize that zoning this team with Thomas Welsh having to close out on three-point shooters on the baseline was probably not going to work out too well. Perhaps UCLA decided to pick its poison and hope USC missed a bunch of shots, but we're reluctant to give that kind of credit to this staff given some of the other tactical mistakes we've seen in recent weeks (namely, manning up on Cal, a poor three-point shooting team, when the game screamed for a zone).
But, yes, in addition to that, UCLA pretty clearly mailed in the game. When a team can frequently get lobbed dunks over the top of the defense, and frequently dribbles right through the defense for open-lane dunks and layups, that means the defenders aren't playing hard, or smart. Yes, USC had an athletic advantage and was generally quicker than UCLA, but the Bruins gave some of their poorest effort on the defensive end as well. That was also demonstrated in UCLA's rebounding. The Bruins were outrebounded 52-30, and UCLA allowed a stunning 18 offensive rebounds. UCLA's centers combined for 35 minutes and had just nine rebounds between the two of them.
Think about this: UCLA lost by 24, but USC actually turned the ball over 17 times, which gave UCLA 18 points off turnovers. Imagine if USC had been a little less careless with the ball?
Prince Ali apparently played three whole minutes, but he did not register a single stat in the box score, and I don't actually remember seeing him on the court. In any case, it's hard to imagine a scenario where he sticks around after this year, where he was relegated more and more to the bench as the season wore on, and was seemingly scape-goated for many of UCLA's defensive issues.
Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford combined to shoot 5 of 23 from the field and 3 of 13 from three as they struggled to deal with the USC athleticism on both ends. Hamilton couldn't get many open looks, and Alford had to content himself with launching deep threes late in the game, of which he made a couple. Both played mostly non-existent defense.
Transition defense was early-season bad in this one. There were a handful of times where USC was able to beat UCLA down court off of made baskets, which is just such a complete sign of zero effort that it's hard to miss. It was actually pretty funny -- after each time UCLA gave up an easy transition basket, whoever got beat down court (Alford, Hamilton, whoever) would suddenly start pointing fingers at some other player as if it was their fault. To make the point clearer: this doesn't seem like a team with a healthy culture that's conducive to winning.
Again, though, USC was pretty simply a better team than UCLA, in large part thanks to players who wanted, at one time or another, to be Bruins. There was Bennie Boatwright, who UCLA dropped before his senior season, raining threes over Welsh to start the game. There was Chimezie Metu, who grew up a UCLA fan, once again dunking over the Bruins and looking like such an athletic freak that when Bill Walton called him Hakeem Olajuwon I actually gave it a few seconds of consideration before dismissing it. There was Jordan McLaughlin, who ultimately looked elsewhere when it was pretty obvious Alford was going to be UCLA's point guard, scoring 18 points and harassing every UCLA guard on the defensive end.
We weren't huge fans of Boatwright, who has become a tougher player in college, but Metu and McLaughlin were players UCLA obviously should have prioritized much more, and this game, along with being an indictment of the effort, the tactics, and the overall direction of the program, is also an indictment of UCLA's recruiting over the last three years.
UCLA, from an administrative perspective, has a decision to make now. The Bruins finished with a losing record, and the team really did seem to quit over the last few weeks. There's something pretty clearly wrong with the direction of the program as well, as UCLA has gone from winning 28 games in 2013-14, to winning 22 games in 2014-15, to now winning 15 games in 2015-16. Alford has also elected to play his son more minutes than just about anyone in the recent history of UCLA, and his son Bryce is, charitably speaking, not deserving of those kinds of minutes given his lack of interest in playing defense and his just OK offensive ability (fourth among starters in eFG% and TS%). If he is the leader of this team, perhaps that speaks volumes about why this team so rarely seems to care about defense. In any case, he should not have been playing 36 minutes per game each of the last two seasons, not even on these not-so-great UCLA teams. He's a volume shooter who has been far from UCLA's best offensive option each of the last two years, and yet he has been featured as if he's college Steph Curry.
Bryce is here for another year, and this is the year that, supposedly, UCLA has been building toward, with Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf, and company coming in. The thing is, though, we haven't seen anything over the last few years to think that UCLA is building toward anything other than another hugely disappointing season where the team will play poor defense, where UCLA will feature the coach's son over more talented players, and UCLA will once again be in the position of not realistically contending for the Final Four. UCLA had three first-round picks in Alford's first year, and that team made the Sweet 16. And this coming year, instead of a team that features Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson, we have to assume that the Bruins will once again feature a volume-shooting point guard who a) doesn't hit enough shots to justify the volume and b) doesn't play any defense. That is not a recipe for winning anything of value.
So, UCLA has a decision to make. The administration can maintain the course, and hope that UCLA catches everything just right next year, and the Bruins get past their defensive issues, and the poor foundation that's been built the last three years, and somehow wins the conference and makes a deep Tournament run. At this point, that seems highly unlikely, but hoping for that is certainly one option. Of course, the flip side is that UCLA will be going into another season where the coach, even if he isn't firmly on the administrative hot seat, is securely placed on the fan hot seat, and as soon as there's a setback, or a bad loss, those fans will be calling for him to be fired. It will be an ugly slog of a season, much like this one, except with the fans getting more vocal much earlier, and it'll be the kind of season that could further diminish the UCLA basketball brand.
The other option is to make a change. UCLA is three years into Steve Alford's tenure, and some might say that's too early to fire a coach, so there's that to consider. By the other token, though, it does seem as if Alford might not have the chops to actually lead UCLA back into the elite echelon of the conference, let alone the country. Again, in year three, UCLA finished 10th in the Pac-12 with a losing record. There's very little reason to think that next year the Bruins will suddenly be elite by adding a few talented pieces -- as we pointed out above, there are clearly some systemic issues that talent is unlikely to fix. If UCLA makes a change, there will be some form of PR hit from the uninformed national media, but the administration will also likely earn back a good deal of fan goodwill for making what will be perceived by the fanbase as a proactive move.
Let's speak plainly: this sucks. It sucks to have to write an article at the end of the season that closes talking about whether or not a coach will be fired. But UCLA is heading into the middle of March with no hope of the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time since 2003, and that sucks as well.
UCLA fans aren't that demanding. They don't need seven national championships in a row, or, really, even one every few years like some of the crazy blue bloods out there. UCLA fans would be content with the team contending for conference titles every year and making the Final Four oh, say, once every four or five years or so. To be clear: those aren't crazy expectations. UCLA has one of the best natural frameworks for success in the country, with a great, unparalleled tradition, a great locale, proximity to tons of talent, and soon-to-be excellent facilities. With those assets, those expectations are completely reasonable.
Missing the NCAA Tournament as much as UCLA has in the last 14 years is simply nuts. At least 64 teams have been selected in each of those 14 seasons, and that means that a program with some of the best natural advantages in the country hasn't been among the best 64 teams in the nation five times in the last 14 years. That's insane. And if we're being completely reasonable, UCLA probably should have missed the tournament last year as well. That means that over the last 14 years, UCLA hasn't been deserving of an NCAA bid in almost half of those seasons.
So it's decision time for UCLA, and if we had to guess right now, the decision will be to maintain the course and hope for a big change next year. That decision pushes the idea of making a change to next offseason at the earliest, but it also risks further alienating a fanbase that has already either been battered or has disappeared entirely.
But hope, even blind hope, seems to be the currency of the UCLA administration, and so UCLA fans are left, as a group, clinging to that same hope: Next Year in the Final Four.