Let's just lead this off with some data from this past season.
UCLA finished 10th in the Pac-12 this year, the lowest UCLA has ever finished in the conference.
UCLA finished 15-17, only the 4th losing season for the Bruins since 1948. Notably, all four of those losing seasons have come in the last 14 seasons.
UCLA finished with 12 conference losses, tied for the most ever (2003, Steve Lavin's last year).
Steve Alford, after three years, has a winning percentage of 61.9%. To put that in context, it's the lowest total figure since Wilbur Johns (John Wooden's predecessor in the 1940s) and also the lowest first-three-years percentage since Johns. Even Walt Hazzard, widely regarded as the worst modern-era UCLA coach, won 62% of his games overall and won 64.9% of his games his first three years. Steve Lavin, for more context, won 65% of his games at UCLA, and 72% of his games his first three years.
UCLA will also miss the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in the last 14 years. Prior to that stretch, UCLA last missed the NCAA Tournament in Hazzard's final year, 1987-88.
This was unequivocally one of the five worst UCLA basketball seasons since John Wooden arrived in Westwood, and if you factor in that this season came in Steve Alford's third year, when the program should be reaching its peak under him, there's an argument that it's the absolute worst. When Steve Lavin lost 19 games in 2002-03, the program had already begun to crater, and everyone know by November that he was going to be fired. When Ben Howland lost 17 games the next year, everything was forgiven because it was his first year at UCLA.
So, let's keep that in mind when talking about the 2015-16 UCLA basketball season. It was an objectively bad season -- that's not an overstatement. It was inarguably one of the five worst seasons for UCLA basketball in the last 65 years.
And it's not the case that it was a good non-conference season followed by a bad conference season and a bad conference tournament -- that's a bizarre rationalization. The non-conference season had two high points (the wins over Kentucky and Gonzaga) but had far more low points (the loss to Monmouth in the opener, the blowout loss to Kansas, the terrible loss to a bad Wake Forest team, and a sleep-walking win over Cal Poly). At best, it was a mediocre non-conference season, and at worst, it was of a piece with a conference season that also had a high point or two (the win over Arizona for sure), but outweighed that high point with a multitude of low points (take your pick).
No, this was the same team all year -- a team that played defense in spurts, didn't give its best effort consistently, and seemingly lacked motivation throughout the year. It was able to get up for a few big games against Kentucky, Gonzaga, and Arizona, and was equally able to no-show games against teams like Washington State, Oregon State, and Washington. Perhaps the effort was slightly better and more consistent in the early season, but by the end of the year, the team and coaching staff had pretty clearly packed it in, and rewarded the fans still watching with some of their worst performances over the last few weeks of the season.
The pieces were certainly there for this to be a more successful season than it was. UCLA has four former Scout five-stars in Isaac Hamilton, Tony Parker, Thomas Welsh, and Jonah Bolden. Aaron Holiday and Prince Ali were both highly rated four-stars. We wouldn't say the Bruins were the most talented in the conference, but from a ratings perspective they were in the conversation. Even if you accept that a few of these guys were possibly overrated, the Bruins were still, conservatively, in the top half of the conference in terms of talent.
So, why did UCLA have so many issues when the talent was there for the Bruins to be, in theory at least, a conference contender? In looking at it, it really comes down to a few things. First, player development in the program is clearly not great, especially from a strength perspective. Second, UCLA made the decision, after Gyorgy Goloman opened the year hurt, to go with two centers in the starting lineup for much of the year, which left UCLA at an athletic deficit defensively and also likely kept Bolden from developing as quickly as he might have. Third, UCLA allocated too many minutes and too many shots to Bryce Alford, who is not a good enough shooter to take the number and kinds of shots he is allowed to take. And fourth, the team had bad leadership from the coaching staff, Parker, and Alford, and that was born out with the bad defense all year and the last three weeks of mailing in games.
Let's start with player development. When we saw the team for the first time in August, it was actually a little stunning to see how little Welsh and Bolden, in particular, had developed physically. Bolden was rail-thin during his first year in the program (when he had to sit out) so it was obvious that he needed to put on some weight if he was going to play power forward at the college level. He didn't really do that, and strength was obviously one of the major issues in his game this year. Welsh, similarly, needed to get stronger, and that was obvious after watching him struggle to finish inside during his freshman year. He got a little bit stronger this season, but the offseason should have been a transformative period for him, and instead he was physically about the same. He struggled with interior defense and finishing inside this year at times, and that's largely attributable to not yet being strong enough.
The thing is, these should have been points of emphasis for both of those players in the offseason. You can't even really fault them -- yeah, maybe everyone should be intrinsically motivated in every aspect of their lives, but it's not realistic. What is realistic is developing a plan for each player in the offseason and making sure they adhere to that plan. Welsh and Bolden both needed to add significant muscle last offseason and it just didn't seem to happen.
We're not trying to be unfair with player development -- obviously, there are guys on the team that have motivation issues that are all their own that have prevented their development. But strength and conditioning is the bedrock of any program, and it's baffling to see two second-year players who were both not strong enough to compete at the level they're capable of.
After Goloman got hurt, UCLA, instead of electing to start Bolden at the four, started Welsh and Parker alongside each other for much of the year. UCLA was able to get through the non-conference with that lineup fairly well, which might have given the Bruins a false sense of security -- the two big wins came against Gonzaga and Kentucky, both of which were arguably favorable matchups for UCLA's big-big lineup. Once the Bruins had to go against the athleticism of the Pac-12, though, that lineup proved to be close to a disaster against teams like USC, Washington, and Oregon.
Would starting Bolden earlier and getting him big minutes with the starters during the non-conference season have changed the course of the conference season? That might be a stretch, but it certainly would have improved the defense, and it's not outlandish to think that UCLA could have carved out a couple more wins with a more comfortable Bolden during the conference season. Bolden didn't have a great first year (again, he needs to get stronger), but he showed flashes of elite potential on defense, and that could have been a game changer if developed properly.
Then, in terms of Alford, it's pretty obvious at this point that UCLA plays him too many minutes and gives him too many shots. We say "too many minutes" because, despite his offensive contributions (he's very good at avoiding turnovers and hits a decent percentage of threes), he had arguably his worst year of defense this year, in his third year in the program. That's not just an aspect of the game, like, say, stealing bases in baseball. Defense is a full half of the game, and he just didn't give a good or even passable effort on that side of the court for most of the year.
We say "too many shots" because he played 36.2 minutes per game this year, which is the most on the team, and attempted 12.75 shots per game, which is second-most on the team behind Hamilton, who attempted 13.625 shots per game. The thing there, though, is that Hamilton's effective field goal percentage (eFG% means that threes are weighted more than twos) is 54.1% while Alford's is 47.4%. Among starters, Alford had the fourth best eFG%, and was just a hair ahead of Holiday, who attempted almost four fewer shots per game. This was Alford's worst shooting year as a Bruin, but he took the most shots he's taken as a Bruin as well.
So, you've got all of that: poor strength and conditioning for a couple of key posts, a lineup change that really hurt the defense, and then a featured shooter on offense who was statistically the fourth-best shooter in the starting lineup. Just those three things alone would cause significant issues for a team.
Now, couple that with the overall poor leadership of the team, as seen through the lack of defense, the poor overall effort at times, the inability to string together road wins, and the lack of consistency from game to game. UCLA's coaching staff has not used the bench consistently as a teaching tool for all of its starters at any point during its three years here, and this season screamed out for that sort of use of the bench. Instead, UCLA periodically benched Prince Ali, who averaged 11.8 minutes per game this year, and, to a lesser extent, Bolden, for defensive lapses. It was uncanny because, if coached properly, those two players each have the athleticism to be actual positive assets on defense. As it stands, those kinds of benchings serve to alienate players when the starters aren't held to the same standard.
Parker got a quicker hook at times toward the end of the year, but for too long during the season he was allowed to play through periods of inattention and lack of focus on both ends of the floor. For Alford, it was much the same, but more pronounced -- unlike Parker, he has never been benched for lack of effort on defense, and he's probably the more egregious of the two when it comes to playing with poor effort on that end. But both of those two were very poor defenders this year, and with Parker it seemed to stem largely from a lack of focus at times, while with Alford it seemed to stem from a lack of defensive effort.
So, that's on the coaches for not emphasizing defense to the point of benching players if they don't play hard on that end. But here's the really screwed up part: Parker, the senior, and Alford, the third-year point guard, were ostensibly the leaders of this team. When the leaders of the team play bad, inattentive defense most of the time, it infects the rest of the team, and by the end of the year, it seemed like the only guy consistently playing hard on defense was Holiday (who's one of those intrinsically motivated types that are so rare at all levels of sports and life).
UCLA mailed in the last three weeks of the season. When the Bruins needed to win five of six to close out the regular season, they lost five of six, a few of them in ugly, blowout fashion. When UCLA needed to win the Pac-12 Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament and salvage the season, the Bruins went down 11-0 early against USC and got blown out by 24. When a team closes the year the way UCLA just closed out the 2015-16 season, getting outscored by an average of 11 points over the last five games, it's hard to say that it was anything other than a leaderless, rudderless team.
The Bruins have gone from 28 wins in Steve Alford's first year to 22 wins in his second year to now 15 wins in his third year. The defense has gotten worse every year (43rd to 67th to 139th according to KenPom's efficiency ratings), the effort level has gotten worse every year, and even the offensive efficiency of the team has gotten worse every year (13th to 40th to 54th). That's a trend, and it's not something that's easily turned, not even with a few talented prospects coming in next year.
No one was expecting this to be a Final Four year for the Bruins, but it was completely reasonable to think that UCLA should have been able to do about what it did last year -- finish in the top half of the conference and sneak into the NCAA Tournament as a middling seed. If we had seen that sort of result, coupled with the team playing reasonably hard most of the time, then we'd feel good enough about the foundation of the program to expect that next year truly would be a very good year.
But at this point it would just be blind hope. Everything we saw from this season indicates that the foundation of the program is anything but solid, and that no matter how much talent arrives next year, the same inherent issues of poor effort, poor defense, and misallocation of minutes and shots will once again provide the team with a firm, disappointing ceiling.