Steve Alford showed up at seemingly the one place that could shield the UCLA basketball coach from his troubles Tuesday and found that even the Woodens had dispersed on him.
Greg Wooden, the grandson of John Wooden, was seated at archrival USC’s table inside the Los Angeles Athletic Club. John Impelman, Wooden’s great-grandson, was seated at Pepperdine’s table during the Wooden tipoff luncheon designed to honor the legendary Bruins coach.
Impelman, an assistant coach with the Waves, told the gathering of coaches and administrators that Wooden’s daughter, Nan Muehlhausen, intended to attend Pepperdine games instead of those of her beloved UCLA.
He was joking, of course. Alford acknowledged the quip with a smile, later eliciting laughter when he called the faux Wooden betrayal “wonderful.”
The embattled Bruins coach appeared to be in a much lighter mood seven months after concluding a downer of a 15-17 season, one of only four UCLA losing seasons in almost 70 years. Alford mentioned having read the book “2 Chairs: The Secret That Changes Everything,” a Christianity-based text that offers practical steps to navigating dilemmas.
Alford also talked about the three freshmen who could change everything. Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu could give the Bruins the best depth they’ve had in Alford’s four seasons, particularly in the frontcourt.
“The talent we have across the board will allow us to get back to playing at least a style that I’m more comfortable coaching,” Alford said in the wake of a season in which his team lacked defense, effort and leadership.
Alford, who is under contract through the end of the 2019-2020 season, referenced the fallout that having rescinded a previous one-year extension may have engendered in the coaching community.
“There are a lot of coaches in here that probably don’t want to see what I did in giving money back,” said Alford, who guided UCLA to NCAA tournament regional semifinals in his first two seasons. “That’s probably not a trend most coaches want to see, but I think we’re very serious about our approach in where that bar is and Coach Wooden obviously established that bar, and when you have an unsuccessful season I think what happens is, you really try to dive into things.”
Alford said before the event that UCLA’s depth could occasionally enable the team to use a four-guard lineup featuring Ball alongside Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday, though he cautioned they could be as susceptible defensively as they would be dynamic offensively because the 6-foot-6 Ball would be the tallest player in the backcourt.
“If we need to change tempo or need to do some things, there’s obviously ways that we can do that by going that route,” Steve Alford said, “but I think we’re pretty deep up front, so we need to find minutes for those guys up front as well.”
Alford has said that Holiday’s improvement at point guard could help free Alford’s son to play more shooting guard, which was the case during the team’s recent Australian tour in which it won two of three games against college and professional teams. Bryce Alford made a team-leading 13 of 24 three-pointers (54.2%) during the exhibition games.
The Bruins have already practiced nine times and scrimmaged once as they head toward their season opener Nov. 11 against Pacific. Alford said guard Prince Ali was on track to return in December from a serious knee injury suffered over the summer.
UCLA’s freshmen could largely determine how far into March the team plays.
“They’re a tough-minded group,” Alford said, “but they’re very eager to learn and keep getting better because they’re all about improving their game and we’re seeing that in practice.”