UCLA's lack of defense, effort and leadership led to a lost season

UCLA's basketball season was plummeting. The team was splintering. And no one knew how to fix it.

It was the last weekend in February and the Bruins had just been defeated by Stanford, one of many frustrating losses in a rare UCLA season full of them.

For weeks, some Bruins thought teammates were following different agendas. Finally, concerns were voiced in an unusually lengthy postgame session.

"It might have been the first time we brought it out in the open," point guard Bryce Alford said last week, after UCLA was routed by USC in the first round of the Pac-12 Conference tournament.

It was the Bruins' final game of the season. Not only did UCLA miss the NCAA tournament, but the Bruins also learned Sunday they weren't playing in the NIT, either.

UCLA finished with a 15-17 record, just its fourth losing season since the tenure of John Wooden, a span of nearly seven decades.

The Bruins never found a system that worked, most notably on defense. Alford said opponents dictated pace and style. Effort lagged. Forward Tony Parker said the Bruins failed to prepare adequately late in the season.

Neither Alford nor Parker, the team's lone senior, had the cachet necessary to light a spark. Last season, after UCLA had suffered a dispiriting sweep against Oregon State and Oregon, senior Norman Powell ripped into teammates. And he got results. The Bruins turned their season around and reached an NCAA tournament regional semifinal.

After the blowout loss to USC, third-year Coach Steve Alford accepted responsibility for what he called an "unacceptable" season.

Some fans have called for his firing in a petition. But Steve Alford, whose teams made nice NCAA tournament runs in his first two seasons with UCLA — and who gets a $10.4-million buyout if the university dismisses him — is not in serious jeopardy of losing his job.

However, next season will be a critical one. Reaching the status UCLA craves — contending for Final Fours and national championships — requires addressing this season's shortcomings: defense, effort and leadership.

For the first time in four seasons, the Bruins should have a roster stocked with high-end talent after one of the nation's best recruiting classes arrives.

"We've got a tremendous recruiting class coming in that we're excited about, that I think will help," Coach Alford said.

Lonzo Ball, who stars for undefeated Chino Hills, the nation's top ranked high school team, could be UCLA's most important player as a freshman.

Most likely, Ball will play point guard, with Bryce Alford shifting to shooting guard and Isaac Hamilton, the team's leading scorer, staying at small forward.

That would leave Aaron Holiday, who showed talent and toughness as a freshman, coming off the bench.

"It's not up to me, it's up to coach," Holiday said. "So whatever happens happens."

UCLA has lacked depth for several seasons. Noah Allen played sparingly this season, and Prince Ali, who showed promise early on, seemed to regress.

But barring transfers, Parker should be UCLA's only departure, and the competition at power forward could be fierce.

The Bruins never replaced the production of Kevon Looney, who left for the NBA after last season. At times, Jonah Bolden started over Parker. UCLA had high hopes for Gyorgy Goloman, but he missed most of the season because of a stress fracture.

The starting job could go to incoming freshman T.J. Leaf, a five-star recruit from San Diego who flipped to UCLA after first committing to Arizona. He could play alongside 7-foot center Thomas Welsh, perhaps the surest bet on the roster to remain in his current starting position.

Despite the talent influx, success is not a given. This season, the Pac-12 was as competitive as it has been in decades. And UCLA might not even be the best team in Los Angeles. USC, which defeated the Bruins three times this season by an average of 19 points, expects to return every major contributor.

Steve Alford said he sympathizes with the UCLA fan base's aggravation and concern.

"If I'm a fan," he said, "I'm upset too."

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 14, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "UCLA must now look to next season - Lack of defense, effort and leadership led to Bruins' fourth losing season since tenure of Wooden." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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