UCLA’s basketball team won the Pac-12 Conference regular-season championship last season and Coach Ben Howland was fired. With two games left in this conference regular season, the Bruins already know they will not repeat as champions, yet all is well.
The change from Howland to Steve Alford has been a mostly lateral move. Entirely horizontal, in fact, according to the records.
UCLA last season had a 22-7 record at this stage. As the Bruins prepare to play at Washington on Thursday and Washington State on Saturday in their final two games before this year’s conference tournament, their record is … 22-7.
Status quo in Season 1 was also the norm when Howland took over from Steve Lavin.
Lavin was 10-19 in his final season as coach. Then Howland came in and was 11-17 before taking the Bruins to the first of three consecutive Final Four appearances two seasons later.
Where do the Bruins go from here under Alford? Up, according to some indications.
Recruiting, particularly locally, has improved. And the revolving door seems to have slowed, with the few remaining scholarship players staying put last spring. The team has also shown a dash of elan on the court.
“The train is moving in the right direction,” Alford said. “UCLA, and other places like it, it’s a big train. To get it moving in the right direction takes a lot.”
Yet, as always, UCLA’s fan base will judge success by postseason performance.
There has been a recent series of train wrecks for the Bruins, who have not made it past the first weekend in the NCAA tournament since 2008. Of course, Alford’s teams — three of which carried third-seeded status into the tournament — have been derailed as well. Only one got past the first weekend — Missouri State, then known as Southwest Missouri, in 1999.
“It’s about championships here,” Alford said. “We are only in Year 1. We’re building toward that.”
This week’s swing through Seattle and Pullman, Wash., could be prep work for next week’s Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, and beyond.
“We put ourselves in this predicament,” guard Jordan Adams said when asked about the Bruins’ falling short of a Pac-12 regular-season title. “We have to focus on these two games. We’ve got win them first. We haven’t been that good at back-to-back road games.”
The Bruins have split games on their last three Pac-12 trips. After this weekend, going 1-1 away from Pauley Pavilion would get them eliminated.
“We’ve got to pick up these two and hopefully carry that momentum into our conference tournament,” forward Travis Wear said.
The Bruins had momentum at the end of last season, but it carried Howland out the door.
Dan Guerrero, UCLA’s athletic director, declined a request to be interviewed about the coaching change. A year ago, he said the program needed a “fresh start.”
There are signs of life on the recruiting trail.
Alford signed Kevon Looney, a highly regarded power forward from Milwaukee Hamilton High. Howland procured out-of-state talent as well, including Shabazz Muhammad, who played one season before heading to the NBA, and current Bruins sophomores Adams, Kyle Anderson and Tony Parker.
But Howland had lost recruiting ground in the Los Angeles area. Alford signed Thomas Welsh, a 7-foot center from Los Angeles Loyola High. Aaron Holiday, a junior at North Hollywood Campbell Hall, committed to UCLA this week. Holiday’s older brother, Jrue, played at UCLA but left for the NBA after one season, straining the relationship between the family and Howland.
“Steve and his staff have done an incredible job in their own backyard,” said Dana Pump, who runs top club-circuit teams. “UCLA has lost kids in the past — James Harden, Paul George, Spencer Dinwiddie. They are getting kids who are 20 miles from UCLA.”
On the court, the win-loss record isn’t the only number that hasn’t changed much. The Bruins averaged 76.0 points and gave up 69.0 in 29 games last season. They are averaging 82.6 points and are giving up 71.0 this season.
The players say it feels different, though.
“Coach Alford gives a lot of freedom on the court,” Wear said.
Asked what has changed, guard Anderson said, “Everything. There are no real similarities.”
Said Adams: “We’re having fun. Coach Alford lets you just go out there and play your game, and not worry about anything. I’m happy.”