Transcript: UCLA Coach Steve Alford and Players Met With the Media Tuesday Ahead of Their Trip to Sacramento

Mar. 14 -- UCLA coach Steve Alford and players Aaron Holiday, Isaac Hamilton and Thomas Welsh met with the media to discuss the NCAA Tournament, Kent State, team expectations, the evolution of Lonzo Ball and more...

STEVE ALFORD

On what went wrong in the conference tournament...

"Well, we just didn't play very well. We had nine games in which we had won nine in a row and that was a grind. Our guys played very well. We've talked to our guys about it being similar to nonconference. We won 13 in a row, lost to Oregon, then put another good streak together I think of six games in a row and then lost two in a row. This one I don't think had as much to do with fatigue physically as much as mentally. We finished in the regular conference and finished in league play with a nine-game win streak, now we were going into the conference tournament and playing the same teams. We had just played SC, we had just played Arizona a week ago before that, and for whatever reason we just didn't play well. But we have been playing very well. Now it's about getting rest. We'll practice all this week prepping for Kent State and the guys seem extremely excited about getting into the NCAA Tournament. We're excited to play."

On heading into the tournament against Kent State...

"We've got to play well. The pitfall is not playing well. When you get to the NCAA Tournament, very few teams, if any, can not play well and advance. That's where the upsets happen. It happens every year and that's why it's called March Madness. I've been a part of both sides in 26 years and experienced both of those things. You've got to be playing good basketball. I like our health right now; we're starting to get healthy. Lonzo is doing much better, TJ is doing much better, and we'll get Alex Olesinski next week hopefully for contact which will help us practice. So we're starting to get healthy again. I think health is first and foremost, and then playing well."

On guard play in the conference tournament...

"Overall our guard play wasn't the way it has been. I thought Isaac was one guy that played very well in those two games and I thought Thom and Ike did a lot of good things and TJ gave us everything he had really on one foot. We appreciate that. It's not that our guards were bad -- just weren't to the level we'd been. We haven't had many games of that to where we've had multiple guards not perform well. It's usually that one guy hadn't had a good game and three guys lifted him up. For whatever reason we didn't quite have that. We just didn't have that urgency we'd had in the previous five weeks. I think we'll get that back this week."

On whether Isaac Hamilton relies on confidence to get his flow...

"I don't know. He's been around four years so, like Bryce, he's been around a lot and experienced everything. When you play as long as they've played, they should understand you're going to go through games where the shot is not going in so you do other things. You rebound, you defend, you get deflections, you talk more, you assist better. Whatever it may be, you figure those things out. Our senior guards are like that and I think Aaron has done a good job all year. I think Aaron is ranked fifth in the country in catch-and-shoot type stuff. Our guards have been really good all year collectively but we didn't have the guard play we've been accustomed to in those two games."

On the do-or-die scenario of the tournament...

"I think they understand. We've talked about the reality of the Pac-12 Tournament is that we won one, lost one and you don't get another game. Once you get one on the right side now, you're done. They got to experience that at the Pac-12 Tournament and so they've got a full understanding. You put anything on the right side of the dash now and the season is over. There is pressure that goes with that but that's what makes this such a unique tournament. I don't think there's a harder national tournament or harder national champion than college basketball. It starts with 351 teams and now it's been reduced to 68 and now you've got to win six on a neutral court. That's hard. You've got to play well for three weeks and you've got to do that in a neutral setting. So our guys understand that and we've got some guys going through it for the first time, so guys like Bryce, Isaac, Thom, Aaron and GG -- they've got to do a good job of helping the young guys. Aaron hasn't been a part of it; we missed it his freshman year. So really four of the eight guys in the rotation haven't been a part of this. The guys that have been a part of this have to do a good job of letting them understand it's a whole different dynamic. You get different officials now, you play in a different environment, you're watching games all day -- I think we might be the last game to play. We might be the last game of the tournament in the first round. There's a lot of games you're watching and you're seeing all of the enthusiasm and excitement, and some of that is good and some of that is 'When are we going to play?' But our guys are eager. This is the tournament they've been waiting on."

On waiting to play last in the Pac-12 Tournament...

"It was (tough) for that tournament. When we tipped off I told the guys there were 12 teams in this thing and now there's five. Without doing anything, we were down to five. That's just part of it. It's the draw. But this team has been gearing for this. The things we've been trying to impress on them as coaches in the months of February and March, not to take anything away from the Pac-12 Tournament because I know our guys went there to win it and we didn't play well, but their urgency and what they want to get done, it's this tournament."

On what he learned from Bob Knight when he won the tournament...

"He kept things consistent. Whether we were at home or on the road, it was the same. You've got to guard against that now. You get into the NCAA Tournament and more people get involved. It's a bigger travel party and that's what we talk to our staff about. We're not changing anything. More people are coming on this trip and more people are going to be on our plane. That's all great, but we're going to keep things the same. We'll be consistent in what we do and how we do things because the players need to see that. All of a sudden you don't want to put in new offenses or new defenses or going to meet at different times and do shoot arounds at night instead of the mornings, you've got to stay consistent in what you've done all year because the players are used to that."

On past experiences of being upset as a three seed...

"It's different teams. At New Mexico we hadn't been there and our Iowa team was really good. That was a shock to that team. About everything that could have gone wrong in that game went wrong. We got beat on a ball that hits the side of the backboard, we missed foul shots. The New Mexico team was a team that was trying to build momentum in postseason play. We had had a phenomenal conference and conference tournament season, so we had gone through a lot. We clinched the conference with two weeks to play and then we run right through the conference tournament without any problems. Then all of a sudden you're getting an Ivy League school and we just didn't play very well on that day. It's different circumstances and it's different teams. I know what I've got in this team. We've got good experience. We've got a good blend. This is a high skill set team. We've got to get back to that fun, run and gun. That's what we do and we've got to get back to that."

On the NCAA brackets projecting UCLA well...

"It's great. This time last year we weren't playing. There was a lot being said on the other end at this time last year and 12 months later all of a sudden you're picked to win the tournament, that means you've had a really good year. I appreciate the efforts our players have gone through and that's where we should be. I want that talk every year. It doesn't mean we're going to win it every year, it's a hard, hard championship these days to do. But I like my team. I like where we're at and I like the character of this team. I know they're going to get me everything they've got. If by chance we don't get it done, it's not because the guys didn't try to do everything they possibly could to have everything set up to do it. They're going to give us their very best. They're fun to watch. They're fun to coach."

On the outside expectations heading into the tournament...

"We talked about that. We put the AP Top 10 on the board yesterday. We said, 'Look at this top 10. We're eighth.' After the selection show I listened to all the pundits and all of those 10 teams, there was somebody that picked one of those teams. That means nine of those teams didn't get picked. So my point is, the noise will pick you and the noise will pick somebody else. The noise isn't going to determine who wins this tournament. It's who can play well at both ends of the floor, together and tough for three weeks that's going to give them the best chance of winning."

On whether there is a difference between not playing well and not shooting well...

"We obviously didn't shoot the ball well. The SC game and the Arizona game were our two lowest offensive efficiency games. We had been from 120 to 125 every game all year long, and in those two games we averaged being at 100, so it was way down. After watching tape of both of those games, we were just a little stagnant. We weren't as fast, we weren't as crisp, the ball didn't move as much. Our screening wasn't crisp and our cutting wasn't sharp. I just thought our entire offensive flow was disrupted and I'm not discrediting the defenses as much as we got a little bit complacent instead of playing at the pace we like to play at."

On whether he has seen Lonzo Ball evolve this season...

"Oh year. I think he as well as everybody else is carrying himself well. He's always been a very confident person and I think he's ready for this. He's ready to orchestrate this team and do the things he's got to do to put guys in the right spot and make his teammates look good. He's got to know that when it's not happening, that he's got to get a little bit more selfish and he's got to go to the basket. He's got to look to score. I think he's ready for whatever is going to be thrown at him because he is built this way. This is the way he's been built. He's a championship caliber individual and we're excited to have him running it for us."

On his vision when he signed Ball, Leaf and Anigbogu...

"I don't know how I could ask much more out of them. 29-4 and we've only lost to three teams and those three teams we lost to we actually beat. They've just been tremendous. And not just the wins. Obviously we're in the business of winning and losing; we're graded on the scoreboard and for the most part this season the scoreboard has been very, very good to us. But it's just gone by so fast. It seems like we were just at the Harbor Bridge in Sydney, Australia getting to know everybody. This was in August and here we are in mid March. It's gone by very fast because they're just a joy to coach. I've said it a hundred times but the best part about this group of guys is that they're high-character guys. They're fun to be around, they're fun to coach, and when they lose they get in the film room trying to make things better. When they win, they do the same thing. They just love basketball and, from a coaching standpoint, you love coaching guys like that. Hopefully we can be together for a long time here."

On if the approach changes given that this 'might' be Ball's only tournament...

"Well, you could probably take might out of it. I just think he's ready for this. This is what he's driven for and he came to UCLA for this. He talked about that in recruiting and he's talked about how we missed the tournament. Obviously when he committed he didn't know we were going to miss the tournament last year but that just added to the fuel of 'I'm going to do everything I can to get this thing back to where it belongs and sit among the top.' And so it's going to be fun to see all of this evolve because I know I've got a point guard and I've got guys around him that are very hungry, humble and eager to get after it. So it makes for an exciting tournament."

AARON HOLIDAY

On how the team practiced after returning from the Pac-12 Tournament...

"We didn't play well. Obviously Isaac had a great trip but, for the most part, I know I for sure didn't play well. So just getting back here and getting refocused, trying to get better."

On his excitement level heading into the tournament...

"I'm very excited. It's my first tournament and I'm excited. I'm ready to go out there and show the world what we can do."

On the outside expectations...

"Personally I don't really care about all that, to be honest. It's about what we do in here and how we play in practice. I just feel like we have the confidence to win it all and that's the mindset we're going to go out there with no matter what anybody else says."

On what he learned in the Pac-12 Tournament...

"Just the simple fact that it's so short. You lose and you're done. So you go in with that mindset trying to win it all, it should help a lot."

On whether he got advice from his brothers...

"Not really. I've watched them play obviously. It's a fun time. They've told me how much fun it is so just go out and have fun."

On the difficulty of not overlooking opponents...

"It can be difficult obviously because we were ranked third in the nation, now eighth, so obviously you're looking forward to certain games and all that, but you've got to take it one game at a time. You lose one, you're done. So we just have to focus on the one game."

On correcting his mistakes...

"Go out with the mentality of playing hard every play no matter what happens. That's pretty much all we can control."

On how Ball has changed since he first arrived...

"I feel like he has gotten better over the year. Obviously knowing when to score, he's always been great at that, or passing. He has been better at hitting all his shots."

On Ball in clutch situations translating to the tournament...

"We play how we play, so if we've played that this long I don't think we're going to change now."

On how they can prevent overconfidence...

"All year we've been playing a certain way so now things aren't going to change. It's about going out there and doing what we've done all year."

On how they keep themselves from doing anything different...

"Just going out and playing. Do what you do, pretty much. We all know how good we are and we know what we're best at, so just going out there focusing on that and getting the job done."

THOMAS WELSH

On how the team's makeup has helped this season...

"The chemistry has been great. It's a lot of fun to play with these guys and we really get along well off the court as well. That's big for us to stay together and being through it whether it's an up or a down, we just keep an even keel and that's worked really well for us."

On whether the disappointment of the Pac-12 Tournament can help in this tournament...

"Definitely. We didn't play our best game but we know what we're capable of and we're confident in our ability, so we're going to go out there and give it everything we've got."

On if he noticed a change in demeanor since getting back from Las Vegas...

"Definitely. This practice will be great for us too but it's what you play for all year so we're going to practice hard and get ready for Kent State because they're going to be a great team that's going to be a good test for us."

On the first practice back after the conference tournament...

"It was a light practice. A lot of shooting, a lot of dribbling, but still, even through that the intensity was definitely there even if it was just light stuff we were doing."

On how Ball has improved throughout the season...

"Yeah he's been getting better as we've continued to grow as a team. People say it all the time and he's an incredible passer, an extremely unselfish player and that really shows. He's great at finding people and as we got to the back stretch of the season, it showed the chemistry we're building and how we're getting used to one another on the court. That's one thing he's doing an exceptional job of."

On eliminating the outside noise...

"It is tough, especially at this time of the year because it seems that everywhere you look they're talking about the tournament, the bracket and all that, but it's about going 1-0 every day, whether it's a game or a practice. We're there to get better and give everything we've got, so that's what we've got to continue to do."

On if the approach changes during tournament time...

"Just how we would prepare for any other game, really. It's basketball, it's 40 minutes and they're going to throw the ball up out there and we'll give it everything we've got. It's something we've been doing our whole lives and it's something we're really excited for it, for sure."

On Ball being a championship caliber player...

"His personality fits that. He's a go-getter, to say the least. He's a guy that's really vibrant out there on the court, too, and this is the biggest stage of the year for us and I'm excited to see what we're capable of as a team. But, yeah, I'm sure he's ready for this moment."

On his expectations for the freshmen...

"It's definitely tough for them because they really haven't experienced it. Obviously we lost in the Pac-12 Tournament and we didn't have a chance to win that, but March Madness is a totally different game. There are six games max and if you lose one, your season is done. No ifs, ands or buts about it, that's just the way it goes. So it's going to be interesting for them because they haven't experienced anything like this but guys like me, Bryce and Isaac that have made a run at the tournament before can explain that to them and help them understand this is the time of year where it has to be the best you've got every game."

ISAAC HAMILTON

On the outside expectations...

"That's what coach said -- we've got to eliminate the noise, just work within. I think this team, throughout the year, has done a great job with that and keeping everyone accountable."

On concerns with Kent State...

"It's one of those teams I would put in a category with the teams we play in November. They play a lot of four guards and their big is more like a power forward. So I think defensively we're playing all guards, so now we've really got to help the bigs. That's going to take us over the edge if we get that in our attack."

On building his confidence level in Las Vegas...

"It's always good to play well and now I've just got to transition it to the next game. I was just in great rhythm and I got a lot of open looks, and they fell for me. So just continue to do that and maintain it throughout March."

On the importance of being in a flow...

"It puts you in a state where you know you can make shots. You look at shots and your confidence is at an all-time high. Now it's about maintaining it gamy by game."

On how they can win six straight...

"I can't stress this any more, but just defense. We can score and we can score with the best of them, but it all comes down to defense. I know against Arizona when our shot wasn't falling, we had to get stops and that would have taken us over the edge to win that game."

On whether Ball has changed during the season...

"He's been the same Lonzo. He's always been passing the ball, reading the right plays and it's about being in the right place to hit shots. He's been rebounding and everything. He has the whole package. His game has transitioned from high school to college really well."

On if Ball met his expectations this season...

"Most definitely. All the hype -- I didn't even get to see him play in high school, but coming in just seeing him play pick up, I was shocked. I expected him to do what he just did throughout the season."

On nerves heading into the tournament...

"You look at it in a sense of you lose one game and you're out. I don't really get nervous. As a team, it's one game at a time. That's how we've been approaching this whole season. It's taking it one game at a time and never look ahead."

On the difficulty of playing the final game on Friday...

"It's kind of tough. It's similar to what we did in the Pc-12 tournament when we played SC. You see all these teams you could play and you get a feel for how the environment is going to be. Also it gives us good footage for other teams and kind of gives the freshmen a feel for how March is and how it's going to be. So you take it as a positive. ... Usually coach keeps us occupied but when there's free time we do watch games, as many as we can."

On the backup plan in case shots aren't falling...

"Defensively. If they don't fall, you've got to keep it out at the other end and if we don't do that, it's tough to play that way."

On if the demeanor changed after returning from Las Vegas...

"I don't think guys changed demeanor. It's the same. They're pretty locked in. Coach had a long speech with us about the games prior, SC and Arizona, so it was more mental than physical, for sure."

On Ball and Leaf knowing what to expect come Friday...

"I think they understand it. Throughout the season, the way they approached every game, they've been coming out and ready for battle. Those guys, that's what makes them unique as freshmen. They're always coming out and playing their hardest."


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