Mar. 16 -- UCLA's basketball program has rarely been on as shaky ground as it is right now...
It has now been 21 seasons since UCLA won a national championship, and prior to that championship in 1995, it had been 20 seasons. In other words, in 41 seasons since John Wooden retired, UCLA has won a single national championship. In that same time frame, Kentucky has won four of its eight total titles, Duke has won all five of its titles, North Carolina has won four of its five, Indiana has won three of its five, Connecticut has won four, Louisville has won three, Kansas has won two, and the list goes on.
Here's a better way to put it: of the 14 schools who have actually won multiple NCAA basketball championships, UCLA is tied for 11th for the most since 1975, which puts the Bruins ahead of basketball powerhouses Cincinnati (last won in 1962), San Francisco (last won in 1956), and Oklahoma State (last won in 1946) and tied with North Carolina State (last won in 1983).
So, when we're writing a piece about the state of the UCLA basketball program, it's important to understand what kind of basketball program UCLA actually has. This is not a program that is among the uber-elite in college basketball -- unfortunately, that categorization is reserved for schools like Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, and Kansas these days. UCLA has simply not won enough to get lumped in with those schools at the top of the mountain.
Of course, UCLA fading from the category of the elite didn't just happen in a vacuum, and it hasn't been a straight-line fall. There was that brief, awesome up-tick for the first half of Ben Howland's tenure when he recruited, developed, and coached very well, and UCLA, as a matter of course, went to three straight Final Fours. If Howland could have sustained that style, and if he'd been wired a little differently, it's actually kind of easy to imagine that UCLA might have been able to ascend firmly back into that elite category, and pull in a 12th or 13th banner.
But Howland wasn't able to sustain the success, and UCLA probably waited a year too long to fire him, and that has long been part of UCLA's problem -- waiting too long to fire a guy. Of course, the more significant issue has been hiring the wrong guy in the first place, as UCLA did with Steve Lavin after Jim Harrick was fired. By hiring Lavin, UCLA wasn't able to parlay the 1995 championship into any kind of meaningful, sustained winning, and Howland's own issues squandered the window that yawned open after the three-straight Final Fours.
Now, as we talked about in the last piece, UCLA has had four losing seasons in the last 14, and has missed the NCAA Tournament altogether in five of the last 14 years. As far as college basketball goes, that's the mark of an average-ish high-major program, and certainly not anything close to elite.
The frustrating thing for UCLA fans, though, is that it's obvious UCLA still has the tools to be an elite program, with a great recruiting base, an unparalleled tradition, soon-to-be very good facilities, and a location that makes the school attractive to players country-wide. Think about this: it took Lavin, who isn't a real basketball coach, six whole years to crater the program -- UCLA had enough natural juice that he managed to go to an Elite Eight in his first season and Sweet 16s in his next five! Howland proved that UCLA is just a smart, sustained recruiting strategy and a good coach away from being right back in the mix for Final Fours and national championships.
Now, UCLA has missed the NCAA Tournament again this year after a very bad season that saw the Bruins finish 15-17. Under Steve Alford, UCLA has become a progressively worse team on both offense and defense, and the shocking thing this year was the near total lack of effort at times, especially over the last three or four weeks of the season when UCLA needed to put together a win streak to get an NCAA Tournament bid. Instead, the team (both coaches and players) folded. It was an awful season to watch, and, as we wrote last week, it is certainly in the conversation for the worst season UCLA has had since 1948. Alford’s first three years, as we talked about last week, were the worst first three years for a coach since Wilbur Johns, and are comparable to the LAST three years for Walt Hazzard and Ben Howland.
How’s this for a stat: UCLA has gone unranked in 46 of 57 weeks during Alford’s tenure. That’s just…irrelevance.
But judging the record and rankings is only a surface-level way to evaluate a program. Below, we're going to take a look at the significant factors that have played into UCLA being in the state it's in: On-Court Issues, Favoritism, and Recruiting Problems.
C Tony Parker (USA Today)
UCLA showed a stunning lack of effort on defense this year, and this was easily the worst year for UCLA under Alford in terms of defensive effort. But what's especially shocking is the sheer lack of defensive fundamentals you see from the players on the court. After four years, Tony Parker still doesn't know how to position himself to avoid fouls, and after three years, Bryce Alford, and Isaac Hamilton to a lesser extent, still don't know to consistently get in a stance and keep their hands up on defense. These aren't even complex things -- keeping your hands up in a zone defense is something you can teach a group of third graders.
The lack of fundamentals in the program is obvious from watching any of the games, and from what we've seen and heard, it stems from a practice culture that is anything but stringent. Howland's practices during his time in Westwood were the stuff of legend, with players having to spend long hours off-court preparing for what they'd have to do on the court. They were extremely tough practices with a ton of time spent on minute attention to detail -- how to space your feet, how to position your hands, the proper angle to bend your knee in a defensive stance.
Alford's practices are lackadaisical affairs from what we've heard, and from what we've seen. There's little attention to detail and little time spent on specific tactics for a given opponent. They're also not close to as rigorous as Howland's practices, which often left players physically exhausted (which was, of course, sometimes detrimental). When it comes to film work and developing game plans, what we've heard is that this staff really has a hard time developing effective game plans, and, what's more, has a pronounced inability to adjust game plans mid-game.
Universally, even if players didn't like him at times, they had a profound respect for Howland's hoops acumen, and what we've heard over the last three years is that it's pretty much the opposite for the overall assessment of Alford. The feeling is that there isn't an emphasis on player development, at least not to the extent there was under Howland, and that's another thing that's pretty obvious watching the team, especially from a physical perspective, where all of these guys look the same as they did last year.
From a game preparation and motivation standpoint, this year specifically, the players and the coaches pretty much gave up on the season down the stretch. Again, not to keep comparing things to Howland's years in Westwood, but when the team would have a losing streak or just not play well for a while, Howland, who was already a tireless, 16-hour-day type worker, would ratchet up the intensity to an altogether new level. Practices would be tougher, there would be even more film work, and more often than not, play would improve.
None of that happened this year. If anything, from what we've gathered, there was actually more of a sense of the coaches and players going through the motions over the last three weeks in practice and film study. If giving effort is the basic thing to expect from players, then giving motivation is the basic thing to expect from coaches, and from what we've heard, both parties failed in those basic jobs.
It’s the consensus from several people around the program: this staff just isn’t the grinding type. They don’t put in the kind of time that Howland did, and as a general rule, they’re just not putting in that same kind of effort. Even throwing that out, there’s an open question whether this staff has the coaching chops to compete at the highest level of basketball — it certainly hasn’t shown up on the court or in practice.
PG Bryce Alford (USA Today)
I've actually avoided this subject in most of what I've written about the basketball team, because it’s an uncomfortable subject and it’s not Bryce Alford’s fault that his dad plays him so many minutes. That's probably been an error on my part, because it's obvious now how much of an issue it is and has been for the team. When Steve Alford was hired, he brought his son Bryce with him to Westwood, and since then, he has played Bryce too many minutes and given him too many shots every single year that he's been here.
It's not really even up for debate. In 2014, Bryce played 23 minutes per game, almost all of them at point guard, and that was a misallocation of the ball responsibilities, for one, since Kyle Anderson was a far better option initiating the offense (Anderson's assist rate that year was a ridiculous 34.1 while Bryce's was a fine, unspectacular 19.1). Alford played just three fewer minutes per game than Norman Powell, who was a significantly better offensive and defensive option and should have played more than 25 minutes per game. Heck, Anderson only played 33 minutes per game, and given that we've seen Alford is more than willing to play Bryce 36+ minutes per game, Anderson probably should have played a few more as well.
Last year, with only three guards on the roster, Alford was forced to play all three of Bryce, Powell, and Isaac Hamilton major minutes, but it’s worth noting that Bryce played the most minutes on the team at 36.3 per game, with Powell notching 34 and Hamilton playing 33. This year, with one more guard in the rotation, Bryce again played 36.3 minutes per game, followed by Hamilton at 35 and Aaron Holiday at 31.
To give that some context, this year he played a greater percentage of minutes for UCLA than any Pac-12 player is playing for any Pac-12 team. He played a greater percentage of minutes for UCLA than Tyler Ulis is playing for Kentucky. He played a greater percentage of minutes for UCLA than Buddy Hield is playing for Oklahoma, and Hield might be the best player in college basketball this year. He played more than Hamilton, Welsh, and Parker, who all shot the ball better this year and played more defense, and he played more than Holiday, who was a significantly better defender and only a slightly worse shooter. Bryce has some obvious assets as a player — he doesn’t turn the ball over much at all and he shoots threes pretty well — but those two things really do not justify the amount of minutes he gets. This year, he was the fourth-best shooter among starters but took the second-most shots.
And from what we understand, the players recognize this issue as well. From what we’ve heard, the players don’t have any specific dislike for Bryce — far from it, actually, as most of what we heard indicates he’s a pretty likable guy — but there’s a real pronounced resentment of the obvious favoritism shown to him by the coaching staff. There will be film sessions where the defensive issues of certain players will be dissected ad nauseum, but rarely is there any mention of Bryce’s defensive issues. There have been a couple of instances over the last couple of years where we’ve heard, after one player or another steps up offensively in a particular game, that the coaching staff’s message is that it was a result of the opposing team being so focused on taking away Bryce.
There’s been enough obvious favoritism in the program that it has contributed to a significant amount of resentment from the players on the team (and not just this season), so it’s something that needs to be mentioned. Whatever we might feel about Bryce playing so many minutes and how it might affect whether the team wins a certain amount of games, our assessment is nowhere near as important as the assessment of the players on the team.
UCLA could see at least one player, and possibly more players, leave the program this offseason, and, from what we’ve gathered, the obvious favoritism, along with the poor coaching and lack of development, could be a factor in those decisions.
HC Steve Alford (Photo by Steve Cheng)
No one is disputing that UCLA has a good group of players coming in with the 2016 class, and the 2017 class is certainly shaping up to be a pretty good one as well. But this year's team was built on the strength of the 2013, 2014, and 2015 classes, and it's hard to describe those classes as anything other than a significant failure.
In the 2013 class, UCLA signed Isaac Hamilton (who had to sit out his first year), Wanaah Bail (who has transferred, and also who probably shouldn't have been playing at this level anyway), Bryce Alford (the head coach's son who plays too many minutes), Noah Allen (who probably shouldn't be playing at this level), and Zach LaVine (who played one year and left for the NBA). You can give them a general pass for this class, since they didn't have much time to do anything beyond bring in a warm body in Bail and eventually get Hamilton on the bounce-back from UTEP. Notably, though, they parted ways with Allerik Freeman, who's a key piece at shooting guard for a pretty good Baylor team this year.
In the 2014 class, UCLA signed Jonah Bolden (who had to sit out his first year), Thomas Welsh, Kevon Looney (who played one year and left for the NBA), and Gyorgy Goloman (who's a backup, at best, for a very good team). No, your eyes don't deceive you -- there's not a single guard in that class.
In other words, after three years of recruiting, of 13 players UCLA signed, four of those still on the roster are probably not capable of playing for a very good UCLA team, one has already transferred, at least one of the remainders is likely to transfer before next season, and two have moved on for the NBA. The 2015 class is shaping up to be a significant failure, with what looks like two non-contributors and a transfer out of four players, and that's not even taking into account what Holiday may decide to do (we've heard he's still uncertain about whether he'll return to UCLA next season). UCLA did not sign a single guard in the 2014 class, which was a failure of pretty extreme magnitude given that UCLA had just three guards on the roster for 2014-15.
Ultimately, just looking at that group of classes, this isn't the way UCLA recruits when the program is healthy. We've gone over Steve Alford's recruiting strategy from those couple of years more than enough, but, to hammer it home, pursuing the uber-elite national recruits all over the country like UCLA did for the first two summers under Alford was a very bad strategy and not the sort of thing UCLA has historically had a great deal of success doing. When UCLA has been very good, the Bruins have built their teams around the great amounts of talent you can find within a 200-mile radius around UCLA. As we wrote at the time, unless you have a firm connection to a kid across the country, it's usually a waste of time to spend a ton of recruiting capital recruiting nationally. It just doesn't pay off enough to justify the expense of time and resources. UCLA spent a ton of time going after guys like Myles Turner, Rashad Vaughn, Justise Winslow, and more, especially in the 2014 class, and it really inhibited the Bruins' ability to sign local talent. Just look at USC's roster of athletic, talented shooters and keep in mind that four of those guys from the 2014 and 2015 classes (Jordan McLaughlin, Elijah Stewart, Chimezie Metu, and Bennie Boatwright) wanted to be Bruins at one time or another. UCLA showed a tremendous amount of hubris in recruiting through the first two cycles, with Alford thinking that his name coupled with UCLA was enough to recruit with the Dukes and Kentuckys of the world.
UCLA is leveraging its connections to the Compton Magic, a local AAU program, significantly more over the next two cycles, which has helped UCLA earn commitments from very talented pieces in Ike Anigbogu, Jalen Hill, and Jaylen Hands, and landing players like those guys is exactly what UCLA should be doing going forward, and what UCLA should have done for the last three cycles. This isn't revisionist history -- everyone who really knew the landscape of UCLA recruiting was telling the staff that they needed to prioritize local recruiting at the time when UCLA was flying all over the country following the elites. We wrote it several times here. Landing a Kevon Looney here or there doesn't justify missing out on the McLaughlins and Metus of the world.
It's also worth noting that, as good as the next two classes are shaping up to be, they're really built on two things: the coaching staff's relationship with the Compton Magic and the coaching staff's relationship with Lavar Ball. Every player committed or signed with UCLA in 2016 and beyond is either named "Ball" or a member of the Compton Magic. Having a partnership with just one AAU program and just one family of basketball players is probably not a path to sustained long-term success. And it’s worth noting as well that one of the few major successes Alford’s staff had recruiting nationally in its first two cycles (landing Kevon Looney) came about largely through the school’s relationship with Adidas.
The foundation of the program has rarely been on as shaky ground as this. From a historical perspective, the last eight years have been pretty close to the nadir for the UCLA program in the modern, post-Wooden era, and over the last three years, Alford has done little to slow the slide into mediocrity. Player development has been poor, recruiting has taken an unnecessary amount of time to get going, and the obvious favoritism shown to his son has alienated certain players and could help to lead to mass departures this offseason.
The fanbase has also been marginalized and alienated, and it has led to an enormous groundswell of fan anger over the last several weeks, with a petition to fire Steve Alford gaining over 1500 signatures and an actual banner flown over the UCLA campus this week calling for his ouster. Even in the waning days of Lavin and Howland, there wasn’t this level of fan anger at the coach. It’s truly unprecedented, and signals nothing good about the current state of the UCLA basketball program.
UCLA is a storied program, with the kind of tradition, recruiting base, and name brand to be a very good to elite college basketball program. As Howland showed just a decade ago, turning the program around and getting back to elite status at UCLA really only requires a pretty good coach who’s dedicated to his craft and a smart, sustained recruiting approach.
And that’s the hope for fans, I suppose: perhaps UCLA will one day have both of those things again.