Steve Alford (USA Today)

Basketball Season Review, Part 2: Expectations, Alford, Indiana and Next Season

Mar. 28 -- In Part 2 of the basketball season review, we break down whether this year's team lived up to reasonable expectation, Steve Alford's job performance, what happend with Indiana and next season...


The season can pretty much be summed up like this:  It was a great regular season, with a disappointing finish in the conference (third), a disappointing exit in the Pac-12 Tournament semi-finals, and then a disappointing exit from the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet 16.

It’s interesting, though: After coming off a disastrous 15-17 the previous season and so much turmoil surrounding the program, the buzz from such a great regular season has created a little bit of an afterglow for UCLA fans. They were so abuzz over Lonzo Ball Ball and the magic of the regular season (probably peaking when it beat Kentucky in Lexington) that their gratitude for that almost offsets the season-ending disappointment. We know it will never change the minds of some short-sighted and antiquated writers and pundits like the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke, who insist UCLA fans aren’t happy with anything but national championships, but this season is proving again that not's the case. If you take the pulse of UCLA fans right now, they were so desperate for something good that 31-5, consistently being ranked among the top 10 in the nation all season, and just watching Lonzo Ball’s style of play was seemingly enough.

But we’re here to perhaps interject a little bit of objectivity. We don’t want to ruin the afterglow but…

This team did ultimately under-achieve this season.

There, we said it.

It had a once-in-every-ten-years caliber player – perhaps the best player in college basketball -- a second Lottery pick, and probably three more pros on its roster blended with experience veterans. It had one of the best offenses in college basketball for the last 20 years. It was easily one of the best eight teams in the country, no question, and the expectation bar for the season was set at the Elite Eight.  It’s where we set it in our season preview back in November, and it was only further reinforced when you saw the full experience of Ball and Co. Yeah, sorry, Bill, we’re not saying UCLA should have won a national championship or even gone to the Final Four.  But this team, given the talent it had on it, under-achieved by not making the Elite Eight.

We think it’s possible to still ride the afterglow – to be grateful but disappointed.   It seems like most UCLA fans are settling into that spot on the sofa and are fine with it.  Again, there’s just such a relief after the disaster of 2015-2016, it’s almost like daddy and mommy were fighting for so long and now you’re just happy they’re not now.

Lonzo Ball Ball created such an afterglow it’s almost impossible emotionally to be disgruntled, even if your logical mind provides you the data to be. 


There was a recent thread on the BRO Premium Hoops Forum that asked forum denizens to assess Steve Alford’s four years at UCLA.

Generally, fans were still not happy with Alford’s first three years but very grateful for the fourth.

As we said at the beginning of Part 1, the theme of this season is Disappointed but Grateful.

That kind of sums up Steve Alford’s job performance since he’s been at UCLA, too.

This last season Alford had unprecedented success – at least compared to his first three seasons at UCLA. This season, the team went 31-5.  In those previous three seasons, Alford was 65-40, which makes for the worst winning percentage (61.9%) of any UCLA coach in his first three years since Wilbur Johns in 1939-1942.  That includes Steve Lavin, Larry Farmer and Walt Hazzard.  His third season he went 15-17, one of only four losing seasons since Johns’ last in 1948.  It was such a disastrous year Alford gave back his contract extension. During the team’s death march to the end of the season and right after its conclusion it wasn’t a great environment in and around UCLA basketball.  Pauley Pavilion was empty.  There was backlash from clear indications of nepotism toward Alford’s son, Bryce, and Alford wasn’t exactly well-liked among the UCLA administration. There was always the lingering shadow of the Pierre Pierce incident at Iowa that Alford couldn’t completely shake.  Some fans were particularly dissatisified; there were banners flying over UCLA calling for Alford’s ouster and, from what we know, it was seriously considered by the UCLA administration.

Then there’s this year, the Disappointed-but-Grateful season.  How does it fit in to the Alford legacy at UCLA?

There is that afterglow, but really, objectively, the season was ultimately disappointing.  We think as the afterglow dissipates many UCLA fans will be left with the realization more and more that, given the talent, the team underachieved.

Perhaps we give credit to Alford for providing the high of the regular season and the current afterglow of it, but also the responsibility for the eventual underachievement.

We can go deeper, too, and, analyze just how much credit should Alford get for that great regular season.

First, start with the personnel and recruiting.  The success in recruiting the 2016 high school class is what led directly to success of the regular season. Let’s face it, too:  it was all about getting Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf. Without those two Lottery picks, this all doesn’t happen.   And we’ll be candid here:  Alford and his staff get marginal credit for bringing in Ball.  Ball's father, LaVar, said that he’d have his sons go to UCLA even if it had “Bobo the Clown in as coach.”  LaVar wanted Lonzo to go to UCLA regardless, to keep him close so he could monitor his college experience.  Alford didn’t have to do much, even though perhaps navigating the unpredictability of LaVar maybe shouldn’t be under-appreciated.   With Leaf, Alford had more of an influence, but it wasn’t the deciding factor.  After Leaf decommitted from Arizona, the natural logic for the Leafs was for T.J. to go to UCLA, especially since T.J. realized the advantages of playing with Lonzo, and there was some influence from Leaf’s AAU team, Compton Magic (see below).  T.J. liked Alford so the box for coach was checked off rather than being the deal-killer.

The other 2016 recruit was Ike Anigbogu, and his contribution to this year’s team can’t be discounted, by any means.  His successful recruitment was a pretty easy one, too. His sister went to UCLA and it’s where Anigbogu always wanted to go.  He played for Compton Magic, and UCLA assistant David Grace has a close relationship with its owner, Etop Udo-Ema.   Compton Magic had quickly become Adidas’ flagship AAU team in Los Angeles, the talent started coming into the AAU program as a result, and Compton Magic players naturally leaned toward UCLA. It was not only a big influence on Anigbogu’s decision to go to UCLA, but it was with UCLA 2017 signees and Compton Magic alums Jaylen Hands and Jalen Hill.

There are two perspectives on this. Some fans will ultimately give Alford and Grace credit for these successful recruitments. Others will look at it that they didn’t consistently recruit well at UCLA without the benefit of these very fortuitous situations and shouldn’t be given credit for it.  It probably should be a little bit of both.

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You blend Ball, Leaf and Anigbogu into Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday and you have the makings of a top-ten team.

Again, so much of the team’s offensive playing style was more Ball than it was Steve Alford.  Ball is a rare player that changes the game. His approach and vision created UCLA’s offense, and it seduced the other players into buying into the pass-first, unselfish mentality.

But, also, give credit to Alford for creating the foundation for it to happen.  We can safely say that this year’s offense might not have happened if Ben Howland had been UCLA’s coach.  Alford’s motion offense that gives its players quite a bit of freedom – which we dubbed the Green Light Offense in its first three years – was truly a conducive garden to plant the seed and watch Ball’s offense flourish.  Alford had enough foresight to hand the ball over to Ball – and take it out of the hands of Bryce, make him a catch-and-shoot cog in the wheel, and Bryce had his best season at UCLA.  Given Alford’s first three years of showing illogical favoritism toward Bryce, this was a departure, and it vastly paid off.  On one hand, it might be giving too much credit for something that Alford should have realized, but heck, all indications from the first three years was that this wouldn’t happen.

In the end, though, despite how entertaining and sublime it was to watch UCLA’s offense this season, and to give Alford some credit for that, he also has to take responsibility for the team ultimately under-achieving.  This was a team that was deserving of a minimum Elite Eight finish, and Alford didn’t get them there.

It must be noted that Alford has coached 22 years in D-1 and has yet to get past the Sweet 16.

What Happened With Indiana?

Most of what transpired with the news reports of Steve Alford going to Indiana was the result of behind-the-scenes machinations.  When it was clear that Indiana was going to fire coach Tom Crean, Alford’s agent Mike Barnett put Alford’s name in the running for the job.  UCLA fans might think it’s ungrateful of Alford and Barnett toward UCLA, but this is the job of an agent, to market his client and take advantage of any situation that could increase and leverage his value.  It would especially be expected in the case of Alford and Indiana, since it’s Alford’s alma mater and he naturally and understandably would be very interested in returning to Bloomington.

From what we've heard, Indiana was legitimately interested in Alford, and began the vetting process, while they vetted other candidates as well. This is where the situation got a little exaggerated and off the rails, however. Behind the scenes, there were those close to Alford, including Barnett, that were selling the Alford-to-Indiana scenario to anyone who would listen, including many in the media. It was circulated that UCLA could very well negotiate down the buyout, that they were quite agreeable to Alford moving on, especially if he didn't want to be at UCLA. As is fairly well-known, there has always been those in Indiana, and within the Indiana athletic administration, who don’t care for Alford, and didn’t want him to be IU’s head coach.  With Alford’s success this season, sources close to Indiana were indicating there was now less resistance to it, including from Indiana Athletic Director Fred Glass. Indiana didn't hire a search firm, so the search was spearheaded entirely by Glass. Glass then fueled Alford-to-Indiana speculation when he made a statement that a candidate’s connection to IU would be a big factor in the hire.  It was thought that one of the biggest selling points for Alford was the perception he would boost IU’s recruiting in the state of Indiana, which observers thought had suffered under Crean.  So, the media, inspired by the behind-the-scenes whispers and some public indications, were saying Alford to Indiana is “a done deal.”

It’s dangerous in today’s news reporting environment to put complete trust in the media.  As was the case here, so many times reporters, who are ex-coaches and not exactly journalists, are too casual in throwing out their opinion as fact.

Meanwhile, Indiana was vetting Alford.  The fact that UCLA made it to the Sweet 16 gave the Indiana administration more time to vet him, in fact. From what we’ve heard, many factors were considered, including the Pierre Pierce incident.  A source in Indiana explained it this way then: “In the end, everyone here was too split on him.”

In the week leading up to UCLA’s Sweet 16 match-up against Kentucky, Alford and his people were starting to get word that Indiana was more than likely going to opt for someone else, but weren’t entirely sure.  They truly didn’t know for certain until right before the game, and it didn’t occur to them that it would be better if they announced before the game that Alford was staying at UCLA.  He also didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to do it.  Alford was asked the question after the Kentucky game, and from the time he and his people knew for certain he wasn’t going to get the job it was the first time a reporter had directly asked him the question about leaving.  

How Does Next Season Shape Up

There’s quite a bit currently up in the air about next year’s roster.  As was entirely expected, Lonzo Ball announced after the Kentucky game he wasn’t returning to UCLA next year.  What’s not determined is who else will leave UCLA early, with candidates being T.J. Leaf, Aaron Holiday, Ike Anigbogu and even Thomas Welsh.

With Leaf being projected as a late Lottery Pick, we still are of the persuasion that it’s pretty certain he’ll leave.

Anigbogu is actually projected as a possible late first-rounder, and while for observers it doesn’t make sense for him to leave, we think there’s a real possibility.

We’d be surprised if Holiday or Welsh didn’t return, but then again some players have made illogical decisions in the past.

If we go with Leaf leaving, but Anigbogu, Holiday and Welsh remaining, we can put together next year’s roster.

Next year, we fully anticipate that freshman Jaylen Hands is going to be a starter in the backcourt, alongside junior Aaron Holiday. We expect it to be a situation where point guard duties are shared, but if we had to guess, we’d lean on the side of Hands being the primary point guard and Holiday continuing to play a role like he did this season, but as a starter.   The frontcourt is pretty loaded, with Welsh and Anigbogu returning as a senior and sophomore, respectively.  It creates a bit of a situation since both Welsh and Anigbogu are both true centers and we can’t see Alford playing a twin-tower lineup for any prolonged period of time. Both are clearly deserving of starter’s minutes. Freshman power forward Cody Riley is very talented and will crack into the frontcourt rotation, too.  He’s more of a back-to-the-basket type of four, rather than a face-up model like Leaf.

We also expect five-star freshman Kris Wilkes to probably get starter’s minutes at the three.  Wilkes, at 6-8, presents match-up problems for defenders, at the small forward position.

The bench will probably consist of sophomore shooting guard Prince Ali, coming off a redshirt year; senior power forward Gyorgy Goloman, who proved his worth as a role player this season, freshman center Jalen Hill and athletic freshman small forward Chris Smith. There is also Alex Olesinski, who also redshirted, Lonzo’s younger brother, forward LiAngelo Ball, as well as senior center Ikenna Okwarabizie

There is a possibility that enough space could open up on the roster through early departures and transfers for UCLA to perhaps sign one more recruit. If there was a type of player it could use, it would be a shooting guard, with the depth in the backcourt a little thin.  

You should stock up on popcorn next year for the entertainment value that could come from the playing time and performance of LiAngelo Ball.  We’ve seen the circus that can be LaVar Ball this season and, as we’ve said, it’s all been fairly innocuous until LaVar isn’t happy.  We think there’s a good chance that LaVar isn’t, indeed, happy at some point with LiAngelo’s playing time and usage next season, and cue the fireworks.  There absolutely is a discussion to be had of whether it was worth it for Alford to make the deal to take all of the Ball brothers to get Lonzo, and we anticipate that discussion heating up quite a bit next season.

Again, it can’t be emphasized enough that the level of offense you saw from UCLA this season is gone with the wind after the departure of Lonzo Ball.  Under Alford it will continue to emphasize transition and a free-flowing halfcourt attack, but it will return to Earth without Ball’s influence.  That doesn’t mean it can’t be good, by any means.  UCLA has some talented offensive players on the roster and, while it won’t be Ball Ball, it should still be good. Hands is a very talented player and even a little under-rated.

We do believe UCLA next season has the capacity to be much improved defensively just merely because of the personnel. Holiday’s minutes should increase to starter level, so that right there will help with perimeter, on-ball defense.  Hands is a long 6-3-ish athlete who has the capability of being a very good defender.  Ali is a good athlete who also should upgrade the backcourt athleticism and defense.  UCLA’s post defense this last season was solid, with Welsh improving and getting more physical throughout the season.  Anigbogu is a physical presence and rim protector, who as the potential to be a high-level defender.  Goloman proved to be a very solid post defender off the bench.  If there was anything negative we could say about T.J. Leaf was that sometimes he slacked on defense, and lacked physicality in the paint, and there will be a bit of addition through subtraction in post defense with Leaf departing.

Defense, as it’s always been under Alford, will be the key.  All NCAA champions of the last 10 years have been ranked in the top 21 in defense nationally.  The data is overwhelming, and this UCLA season pretty much hammered it home as fact: You can’t win without defense.  Alford, since he’s been the coach at UCLA, hasn’t been able to put together a good defensive team.  It clearly is what has set back his program.  He’s had some exceptional offensive teams, but all have lacked a good defense.

There is a thought among UCLA fans that, with the departure of Bryce Alford to graduation, Steve Alford will now be able to institute a better defense at UCLA. They cite his defenses at New Mexico, which were generally good.  It very well could be true – that UCLA’s defense improves with the departure of Bryce, and Isaac Hamilton.  But as we pointed out in Part 1 of this season review, the team isn’t coached well defensively.   Perhaps that was a by-product of Bryce being on the squad, too. It’s unknown and impossible to know.  In fact, it’s really the big question: How will Steve Alford change as a coach now that he’s not coaching his son at UCLA?  We could speculate and speculate, but it’s impossible to know.

Perhaps the biggest curiosity of next season is just that: it begins the post-Bryce Steve Alford era at UCLA.  On one hand, it’s natural to think that Alford could be a better coach now that he doesn’t have his son on the team, that he’d be less susceptible to favoritism. And, as we pointed out, there’s a potential for the defense to be particularly upgraded.  There’s also the question:  With Alford going into his 23rd season as a D-1 head coach, will he still have the utmost motivation now that he’s not coaching his son?  We know that Alford doesn’t necessarily feel entirely at home at UCLA, and with the departure of Bryce, is there now less keeping him satisfied with coaching at UCLA?  On the other hand, he’s recruiting well.  He has the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class coming into UCLA next fall, and he’s poised to get the nation’s No. 1 prospect in the 2018 class, power forward Marvin Bagley, who is a player capable of Carmelo-izing the 2018-2019 season (like Ball did to an extent this season).

UCLA fans should definitely get the popcorn ready.

Coming Soon: An in-depth look at UCLA’s 2018 recruiting….

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