Steve Alford appeared at ease last week as he stood on the edge of the Pauley Pavilion court, his trim physique and thick mop of gelled hair almost as reminiscent of the sweet-shooting Indiana schoolboy as a 52-year-old nearly three decades into his coaching career.
The moment was a throwback to a much simpler time.
In a matter of days, Alford’s biggest worry would shift from shepherding freshman-laden UCLA through its early schedule to the jarring possibility of returning from a season-opening trip to China with three players staying behind to deal with the fallout from allegedly shoplifting designer sunglasses.
The biggest preseason scandal to rock the Bruins’ program since coach Jim Harrick was fired in 1996 over lying about a recruiting dinner has darkened more than the futures of LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, the freshmen allegedly involved in the theft near their team hotel in Hangzhou, China.
An extended absence of the three would greatly hinder UCLA’s depth and ability to apply the kind of all-out defensive pressure that the Bruins hoped would make this team more complete than the one that ended last season, when it was overrun by Kentucky in an NCAA tournament regional semifinal.
Ball, Riley and Hill will miss the No. 21 Bruins’ opener against Georgia Tech on Friday night in Shanghai, having remained at a hotel in Hangzhou while waiting for legal proceedings to unfold.
Some UCLA fans have gone on message boards to demand harsh penalties, including expulsion from school, if the allegations against the players are proven to be true. Others have used the episode to further question the coach who has repeatedly taken his team to what’s known among some fans as the “Steve 16,” a derisive twist on reaching a Sweet 16 that goes back to Steve Lavin’s years coaching the Bruins.
It’s become a familiar destination once more under Alford. His first four seasons at UCLA, those fans would tell you, have gone Steve 16, Steve 16, Losing Record, Steve 16.
Asked whether he felt any pressure to go further, the ninth coach to succeed John Wooden did not sound like someone haunted by the banners hanging from the rafters above his home court.
“There’s only six programs in the country that have done what we’ve done,” Alford said last week, referring to having advanced to three regional semifinals in four years. “Did we have one bad year? Yeah. But we’ve had three really good years.
“I also know the history and I know the tradition here, but truth be told too, you’re talking about from ’75 to current, there’s been one national title. So I know that history too. It’s just we know what our expectations are and we’re going to play as hard as we can and do as well as we can.”
The Bruins are coming off a 31-win season that was both exhilarating and something of a disappointment. UCLA featured one of the most entertaining offenses in the country -- a college version of the Golden State Warriors -- while rolling out a defense that more closely resembled that of the long-suffering Washington Generals.
The team lost its entire freshman class in the spring: Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu all off to the NBA draft. Sharpshooting guards Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton also departed after exhausting their eligibility, leaving the Bruins with only one returning starter in senior center Thomas Welsh.
“I think our offensive style,” Welsh said after the Bruins scored 111 points last week during an exhibition rout of Cal State Los Angeles, “is pretty much the same.”
Not entirely. The 7-foot Welsh has added three-pointers to an arsenal that already included one of the most automatic baseline jumpers in the game.
UCLA hopes to preserve the offense that reinvigorated a fan base, helping the Bruins sell out nine home games last season while averaging more fans than at any point since winning its last national championship in 1995.
Interest remains strong in a team that also returns junior point guard Aaron Holiday and senior power forward Gyorgy Goloman while adding McDonald’s All-Americans Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes. A school official said season ticket holders renewed at a 94% rate while the fan base added 800 new season ticket holders.
UCLA has also retained its most opinionated fan in LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo. The eldest Ball said he liked what he saw from the Bruins during their exhibition.
“They finally picked up my style of play, that fast pace,” LaVar Ball said. “They ain’t running no plays, they’re just throwing the ball to athletes in front of them.”
The primary pace pushers will be Hands and Holiday, who will often play together in the backcourt. Hands soared over his coach during a dunk competition last month at Venice Beach and will contribute to an influx of length and athleticism that should make the Bruins much stronger defensively, provided their ranks aren’t thinned by the legal imbroglio.
The schedule could become a slog even before Pac-12 Conference play. In addition to their China trip, the Bruins will travel to Kansas City, Mo., to play in a two-game tournament; Ann Arbor, Mich., to face Michigan; and New Orleans to play Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic.
Ultimately, some won’t consider UCLA’s season a success unless it makes a final stop in San Antonio for the Final Four. Alford hasn’t participated in college basketball’s biggest showcase since playing for the Hoosiers and the Bruins haven’t been since enjoying the last of three consecutive trips to the Final Four under coach Ben Howland in 2008.