Column: The Bruins aren’t going anywhere, but the same should be said of Steve Alford
It’s Year 1 post-Lonzo and the UCLA basketball team has returned to irrelevance. For better or worse, the Bruins haven’t made any headlines since three of their players were busted in China for reenacting scenes from “Ocean’s Eleven.”
As deflating as the team’s 5-4 conference record is the number of empty seats in Pauley Pavilion, with an announced crowd of only 8,028 fans watching a 70-57 victory over California on Thursday.
The football team produced similiar mediocre results and inspired the same level of public apathy, and Jim Mora is now collecting severance checks. It’s natural to wonder if UCLA will soon use its Under Armour millions to make a similar change to its crown-jewel basketball program.
Only in this case, the athletic department should wait. However this season ends, it should wait.
Maybe Steve Alford isn’t the right coach to lead UCLA. But maybe he is.
It’s true the Bruins are back on the NCAA tournament bubble, and it’s true they are in danger of missing the 68-team field for the second time in three years.
But Alford is also the same coach who reached three Sweet Sixteens in his first four seasons in Westwood. He deserves better than to be judged on this season.
Alford has demanded his players not make excuses, so he won’t say this, but the reality is that this team’s fate was sealed last month when freshman shoplifters Cody Riley and Jalen Hill were suspended for the season.
The other culprit, LiAngelo Ball, had already withdrawn from school.
Alford, who is under contract through the 2020-21 season, had a say in how the players were disciplined. He could have pushed for Riley, Hill and Ball to be reinstated for Pac-12 play. Instead, he prioritized the reputations of the school and program.
“I just thought that was the right thing to do,” Alford said.
Boxing promoter Kathy Duva once said about a tough decision she made: “Making the decision was easy. The hard part was living with the consequences.”
And so that’s what Alford is dealing with now, with fans on the internet already anticipating his departure as he tries to compete with a depleted roster.
Alford was expecting to have an 11-player rotation. Instead, the Bruins are down to eight scholarship players. He said he was “extremely proud” of the group.
“They’ve been through a lot, a whole lot,” he said. “As long as they keep fighting and keep working to get better, that’s what I really appreciate.”
The shortage of depth has affected how they have played, particularly on the defensive end. The Bruins can’t press nearly as much as Alford envisioned.
“It’s kind of a catch-22 because this team is at its best in transition,” Alford said.
Alford was displeased with how his team defended in the three consecutive defeats leading up to the Cal game. Asked if the players might be fatigued, he replied, “It can be. You’re in the grind of the season, but I already told the team that ... if that is the reason, that’s a lack of toughness. I think that’s what’s being challenged here, how tough we are.”
As they are now, the Bruins are a mediocre team in a mediocre conference. But everything can change in a year, as it did the last time they failed to reach the NCAA tournament.
The Bruins looked like they had nothing going for them in 2015-16. They lost three times to USC. They finished 15-17, including 6-12 in the Pac-12.
They returned the next season with Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf and, suddenly, a national championship felt as if it was within reach.
The Bruins have another loaded recruiting class coming in next year, headlined by 7-foot-1 Moses Brown, a five-star center who committed to UCLA last week. Riley and Hill will be reinstated. Potential one-and-dones Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands should return for their sophomore seasons.
There’s something else to consider when pondering Alford’s future: There isn’t a basketball equivalent of Chip Kelly waiting to be picked up.
Kelly was on a semi-sabbatical when UCLA signed him to replace Mora, as he was working as an ESPN analyst. Billy Donovan has the background and stature to be the Chip Kelly of the basketball program, but the resurgence of the Oklahoma City Thunder makes it unlikely he will be available.
The next step forward for UCLA could be taking no step at all. It worked last year and it could work again. There’s no harm in waiting.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez
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