UCLA coach Steve Alford has a mountain of analytics that spells out his team’s deficiencies on defense. The Bruins’ other recent shortcoming has been harder to quantify but just as significant to a season-worst three-game losing streak.
“I think that’s what’s being challenged here is just how tough we are,” Alford said Tuesday.
Alford wasn’t referring to effort so much as the toughness of fighting through fatigue with an eight-man rotation while executing the game plan at a high level. The Bruins’ inability to do so has resulted in repeated slow starts and players abandoning the team’s defensive principles, with excruciating results.
UCLA is in the midst of its longest losing streak since a five-game free fall to end the 2015-16 season, leading to a banner being flown over campus calling for Alford’s dismissal. Alford then returned a one-year contract extension as a goodwill gesture before earning it back with last season’s 31-5 record.
It appeared that this season’s team was headed toward a likely NCAA tournament berth before a skid that has left it with records of 13-7 overall and 4-4 in the Pac-12 Conference.
“From the first of December all the way through Colorado,” Alford said, referring to his team’s 65-59 loss to the Buffaloes on Jan. 13, “I was seeing growth defensively, and the last three games we’ve had slippage there. All of our discussions the last two days have been, ‘If you’re going to continue to have slippage at that end, this team’s not going to be successful.’ ”
UCLA’s defense is the worst of the Alford era, according to the analytics of Ken Pomeroy. The Bruins’ adjusted defensive efficiency ranks No. 137 nationally after having been ranked No. 85 last season, No. 118 in 2015-16, No. 66 in 2014-15 and No. 37 in 2013-14.
UCLA also lags in more traditional metrics; its defense gives up an average of 76.7 points per game, ranking next to last in the Pac-12.
Alford had trumpeted his team’s defensive potential before the season, citing the length and athleticism of a seven-man freshman class. But he said Tuesday that the suspensions of forwards Cody Riley and Jalen Hill and the departure of guard LiAngelo Ball in the wake of a shoplifting scandal should not be used as justification for spotty defense.
“There’s no excuse and we’ve told our team that,” Alford said. “There’s no excuse for the way we’ve defended in the last two weeks.”
Point guard Aaron Holiday suggested the team lacked the tenaciousness it had shown earlier in the season.
“Just gotta fight more, get in gaps,” Holiday said. “Tapes went out and everybody knows what to attack and all that, but at the end of the day we’ve just got to fight and get this turned around.”
Players said the team held a spirited practice Monday that felt more like one from before the season, when the Bruins weren’t trying to preserve themselves for games.
“It was just a lot of competitive stuff, more blue versus gold, consequences if you lose,” forward Alex Olesinski said.
Said shooting guard Prince Ali: “Everybody was just out there competing, man. We’ve got to play with an urgency now because we’re trying to do good things, so everybody’s out there competing and trying to get better.”