The memory is still there.
“Like it’s yesterday,” says Kris Wilkes.
The snow falling outside the University of Dayton Arena. The quiet chill building inside the UCLA basketball team.
The rage of St. Bonaventure. The resignation of the Bruins. The worst defeat in the UCLA coaching career of Steve Alford.
The last time some fans were paying attention to this team, it was the middle of last March, and the Bruins were falling to the Bonnies, 65-58, in an NCAA tournament play-in game.
“For us to lose a game like that …” says Wilkes, shaking his head.
Some people thought Alford would not hold his job. Some people were even willing to put their money behind it. Shortly after that loss, an airplane was rented and a banner was purchased in hopes of persuading athletic director Dan Guerrero to can him. It was the second time in three years that fans made an aerial appeal.
The soaring solicitation read: “Final Fours Not First Fours #FIREALFORD”
I thought the banner’s expectations were fair, but its hashtag was not. I wrote that Alford should not be fired, that his previous success had earned him at least another season. He had led the Bruins to the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 three times in five years, and countless early upset victims can attest to the difficulty of the task. Then last year, just before the season opener, he lost three players in the China shoplifting scandal, so it was a lost cause from the start.
Fast forward to last weekend, my first visit to Pauley Pavilion this season, watching their blowout victory over unbeaten Loyola Marymount, and now I can safely report a truth you can fly across the sky. With this team, Alford’s last chance will be a fair one.
This team will give him every opportunity to save his job. This team is talented and deep enough to make the kind of March noise that doesn’t sound like boosters calling for his head.
They’re skilled enough, if he can coach them up enough. The potential is there, if he can coach it out of them.
This team isn’t great yet, but it’s good, and it’s fun, and it has the talent and depth to grow into so much more. This team won’t win 31 games like Alford’s team of two seasons ago, but it should win more than the 21 games of last season and it should be able to play itself into a position to return to the Sweet 16.
“They’re fun to watch, they’re entertaining … this is a different team,” says Alford. “We just keep growing, listening, getting better … the ceiling is high.”
But if they don’t touch that ceiling? If they don’t keep improving and evolving and becoming what a group that includes three five-star recruits should be?
That’s on Alford, and while he says he doesn’t think about it, he knows it.
“We’re at UCLA. We don’t want to lose in the first round of the tournament,” he says.
And what if Pauley Pavilion continues to resemble a half-filled library, with swaths of empty seats and stretches of quiet that have accompanied Alford for nearly his entire tenure here?
That’s also on Alford, because coaches in this entertainment town are judged on whether they can guide their teams into being alive and attractive and relevant. The optics at Pauley are as bad as they’ve ever been. The arena must find a buzz, and this team can do that, if Alford can coach them there.
Alford blanches at the notion he is coaching for his job. But he acknowledges that in this era of one-and-done, there is a sense of urgency in this season of so much talent and possibility.
“Worrying about a job is not something I do. … I hope media and fans can see, I’m just coaching for these kids,” he says. “And I’m coaching as hard as I can, because you just don’t get them very long.”
These Bruins, who host Notre Dame on Saturday in one of those early-season checkpoint games, are only the 48th-best team in the country according to the comprehensive Pomeroy College Basketball rankings. But their six wins have come by at least 10 points and their two losses, blowouts by Michigan State and North Carolina in Las Vegas during the Thanksgiving holiday, came with silver linings.
They outscored the Spartans in the second half and outscored the Tar Heels in the first half. By the time they returned last weekend to beat the veteran Lions by 24, they seemed to have figured something out.
“I honestly I think with the players we have coming in, our chemistry so far, we can do bigger and better things than we did last year,” says Wilkes.
That sophomore leader is one reason why. He has matured from the kid who was benched at the start of last year’s play-in game because he was late for a team bus.
Wilkes is their leading scorer. He’s joined by dunk-machine center Moses Brown, pass-first guard Jaylen Hands, and resurgent junior guard Prince Ali in comprising an exciting core.
”I love our talent, I love our length, we’re starting to listen, we’re playing defense, we’re playing off each other, some special things are happening,” says Alford.
And for once, he has real depth, beginning with the two China scandal kids who stuck around. LiAngelo Ball dropped out, but Cody Riley and Jalen Hill stayed, and watching these two skilled big men this year, one can see what last year’s Bruins were missing.
“We have so many guys who haven’t played together, we’re finally starting to trust each other,” Alford says.
They have nine guys playing double-digit minutes. They have four guys averaging double-digit points. They all run around the court like a team with a burden lifted, which, actually, they are.
“We have more guys coming back, more team chemistry, we’ve come together more as a team,” said Wilkes.