Steve Alford (USA Today)

UCLA Coach Steve Alford and Players Talked Ahead of the Team's Trip to the Arizona Schools

Feb. 21 -- UCLA men's basketball coach Steve Alford and players spoke to the media ahead of this week's trip to Arizona State and Arizona...

STEVE ALFORD

On what the team needs to do better against Arizona...

"That's a hard one for me. I haven't even looked at that tape. Our whole focus is Arizona State, so I'd struggle getting to even players on Arizona because right now my mind is still on Arizona State, so you can ask me that Friday."

On what the team needs to do against Arizona State...

"We did a really good job to start the game. We shot the ball extremely well, which this team does more than not. We jumped out quick and I thought defensively we had a lot of breakdowns. They cut a 20-point lead to six to start the second half, and then I thought we cranked it up again. That's kind of what we had done most of the year until we got to February. Since February our guys have been much more consistent in what they've done defensively. That's what you're going to have to do now down the stretch -- whether it's these last two road games or it's into March, Pac-12 Tournament at a neutral site or NCAA Tournament at a neutral site -- you've got to be consistent in what you're doing. That's really been our theme since the start of February -- be consistent and keep growing. We can't have that dip, we can't be a roller coaster. It doesn't mean we're going to win every game, but it does mean we've got to be consistent in how we play on both ends."

On defensive improvements...

"I think they're more engaged. It took losing to Arizona at home and USC on the road. We've got their attention much more. We were 18 or 19 and 1, with the lone loss being basically a last-second fadeaway from about 26 feet ... Then when we got beat two games in a row, we really got their attention to where now they're doing the things in practice each day and concentrating on how they can get better. We made some subtle changes but it's really been the players that are more engaged on that end. We've been able to show them on field what we look like when we get stops. Cause when we get stops, wow. This team is at a whole 'nother level. We're so good in transition but it's hard to get out in transition if you're taking the ball out of bounds. The offense hasn't changed because that efficiency has been the same, but our defensive efficiency in February has been 96 and we haven't been there all year. We're trending the right way and we've just got to make sure we continue that way."

On bracket projections having UCLA as a four seed...

"It's odd. That part is odd but we don't control that. There are still a lot of games to be played -- we've got four regular season games left and potentially three in the conference tournament so we have plenty of time to continue to work towards being a better basketball team. Regardless of where we're seeded, we know it's a national tournament and teams are going to be very good and very hungry. The men's tournament now, the parity is unbelievable so you've got to be playing good basketball. We haven't talked about it. I've never heard one of our players say 'Hope we get to a three seed or a two seed.' I haven't even heard them say we're a four seed. I don't think that matters to them. I know it doesn't really matter to us coaches. It's how we're playing. The biggest question when we're done with the Pac-12 Tournament is how does this team look. If we can stay healthy and take the next three weeks to get better before the national tournament, if that happens then we're going to be pretty exciting."

On how non-conference opponents have affected their RPI...

"That's hard to say. Also what your league does in non-conference as well has an impact. Michigan looks like they're on an upswing and might make the tournament because they're playing well. Texas A&M has had a tough go, Nebraska has had a tough go, Kentucky is still a top 10, top 15 team and we won on their floor. So we know we scheduled very well and we played good teams, you just can't control what they do and can't control what your other league teams do. Truth be told, we didn't get a lot of wins in non-league like we did a year ago. Everybody in our league has had to make that up here in league play. Right now there has been a separation. We've got to continue to be a part of that separation of Arizona, Oregon, UCLA, and hopefully we can sustain that."

On prop bet asking whether he has better hair than Jay Wright...

"I get critiqued a lot of different ways, so might as well be that too."

On his players showing emotion...

"We don't have a lot of big personalities or egos. It's a humble group. And we've talked about staying humble, being hungry. We've talked about that all the time. It's just their character. They're just great guys. Somebody said the other night at the press conference about Bryce having this look, like a snarl on his face -- well it doesn't make you a bad guy if you snarl. I hope I'm a pretty good guy but I'll break a clipboard every now and then. I just want a little bit more fire and I'm seeing that. We're talking more. It's subtle, but they are starting to talk more at the defensive end and that's going to be huge for us going forward."

"It just helps. You don't want the emotion to get in the way or affect the way you play, but if you have emotion and continued play at a high level, that's constructive emotion. We need more of that. Thom showed that in the last game. Ike can show that at times with his plays around the rim. We just need more of that. I'm not saying go crazy -- but more than anything, I'm not concerned if we make a three or get a dunk, but if we've got active hands and we're talking defensively to get through screens. That's where our talking can really help us."

BRYCE ALFORD

On being the No. 5 team in the country but holding a four seed...

"I'm not even sure how that even is a thing. I don't know how we're a four seed right now in their eyes. But if anything it just means we've got more work to do. We play a top five team this weekend and that's a chance. We go in their building and they don't really lose, so that could go a long way in the eyes of the committee, just like we went into Kentucky. Not sure there are a lot of teams that can go into a place like Rupp Arena and get a win. If we can do that at McKale, that's a big deal, and obviously in the Pac-12 Tournament we'll get a chance to play maybe another three good teams. We still have more opportunities to move up in the rankings and we've just got to take care of business."

On what the team continues to work on...

"Continuing to work on our defense. Our offense has spoken for itself in remaining steady. We've been the best offensive team in the country all year long and that really hasn't dipped other than maybe the two-game stint when we had the losing streak, but our offense has been at an all-time high. Staying sharp with our cuts, reads and sets, but more than anything it's about what we do on the defensive end and figuring out what we do best on that end to bring it to the offensive end."

On the defensive differences this month...

"A lot of it is a mind set. That's what everybody will tell you. We just bought in. Earlier in the season we were just winning by outscoring our opponents and we kind of got in a groove of that. It's hard for players to convince players of that when we're 15-0 or whatever we were -- it's hard to convince us of that. That two-game losing streak really hit us in the face. Arizona coming in here and scoring 96 really showed us that we really needed to work on our defense. The players took a different mind set and the coaches have done a great job of changing up our scheme to make us a little bit more aggressive and get us away from being on our heels to attack more."

On showing emotion...

"I try to be that guy. That's kind of my role is being the emotional leader and making sure that if we have a two- or three-minute span of not talking or not being energized, that I can make a play that gets us going. Obviously we respond a ton whenever 'Zo does anything, so he's got that vibe that if he shows emotion, we rally around that. He's done a great job of that and as the games mean more, you'll see not only 'Zo, but everybody start to play a little bit more emotionally."

THOMAS WELSH

On Saturday's game at Arizona...

"It's going to be a huge game for us and it's a tough place to play with a good environment, so yeah we've got to take care of Arizona State on Thursday and just keep moving forward. But yeah that should be a good game -- I think we're all really excited for it."

On the challenges Arizona State presents...

"They've got guys that can do a lot of good things for them and when they get going they can be a dangerous team, so we've got to go in there and do what we know we can do offensively and just keep playing great defense."

On showing more emotion lately...

"The enthusiasm just gets everyone excited and brings us together, helps build momentum and build runs, too. Coming into March it's the best time of the year to get that going."

AND IKE ANIGBOGU

On the health of his knee...

"I feel like I'm getting closer to 100 percent. I've been rehabbing and strengthening, just trying to take care of my body a lot. ... I don't feel like it's limiting me. It's like a day by day thing. Sometimes it's not feeling well but it's not anything that I won't practice for."

On not having a major letdown this season...

"It's mostly come down to a pride thing. We feel we should be able to play against anyone to our fullest capability. If we play our best, we should be able to come away with the W. We don't want to come in and disrespect anybody in this league and that really helps us."

On showing more emotion lately...

"I feel like it brings us together and we all strive for one another. The emotion really helps us."


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