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A big season is what Steve Alford wants from UCLA's basketball team — and what he may need to remain as coach

A big season is what Steve Alford wants from UCLA's basketball team — and what he may need to remain as coach
UCLA guard Jaylen Hands celebrates with coach Steve Alford following a win over USC on Feb. 3, 2018. (Michael Owen Baker / Associated Press)

One of UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero’s basic expectations for his coaches is to compete for Pac-12 Conference championships.

Ben Howland won the Pac-12 regular-season title in his final season as the Bruins’ coach, but his teams had backslid enough by then that Guerrero felt compelled to make a change. Howland’s resume included three consecutive Final Four appearances as well as two losing seasons and no trips past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament over his final five seasons.

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Steve Alford’s record heading into his sixth season at UCLA is one that suggests the Bruins may need to play deep into March to solidify his standing. He’s made three trips to an NCAA tournament regional semifinal but advanced no farther, and he’s once again coming off the wrong kind of banner season.

Angry fans paid for a banner reading “Final Fours not First Fours #FireAlford” to be flown over campus in March after the Bruins lost to St. Bonaventure in an NCAA tournament play-in game. It was the second time in three years that banners intended to embarrass the coach made the aerial rounds in Westwood.

Guerrero has since declined to extend Alford’s contract, which runs through April 2021, but the coach said Monday that his boss hasn’t outlined any demands for a season that starts Tuesday night when the No. 21 Bruins face Purdue Fort Wayne at Pauley Pavilion.

“Nothing’s really changed from when I was hired to do the job that I was supposed to do,” said Alford, who’s compiled a 117-57 record with the Bruins, “and we’ve just tried to do it the absolute best that we can.”

UCLA captured the Pac-12 tournament championship in Alford’s first season but hasn’t won a conference regular-season title, finishing third last season. No autopsy was needed after the Bruins went on to the earliest NCAA tournament exit in school history.

“As far as what went wrong, we took the China trip,” Alford said, alluding to the international shoplifting scandal that led to the departure of shooting guard LiAngelo Ball and the seasonlong suspensions of forwards Cody Riley and Jalen Hill.

Alford has won 67.2% of his games with the Bruins, a lower percentage than predecessors Howland (73.7%) and Steve Lavin (70.8%). He’s also the only coach at the school to last at least five seasons and not advance to a regional final since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

The hope is that a heralded six-man freshman class and the return of two players who considered jumping to the NBA could help the Bruins soar back to national prominence.

“If we get everybody healthy, this team is going to be I think one of the best teams in the country,” Alford said, “but we’ve got to get healthy and along the way we’ve got to learn because we have a lot of guys playing for the first time.”

UCLA’s expected nine-man rotation to start the season will feature five players making their college debuts in true freshmen Moses Brown, David Singleton, Jules Bernard and Kenneth Nwuba in addition to Hill, a redshirt freshman.

The Bruins remain deep, long and athletic even with nearly a full starting lineup’s worth of players sidelined. Power forward Shareef O’Neal will miss the season after undergoing heart surgery to correct an electrical defect. Point guard Tyger Campbell will also miss the season because of a torn knee ligament.

Power forward Alex Olesinski is out until December because of a stress fracture in his foot and Riley could miss a few more weeks after recently suffering a jaw injury in practice when he collided with the 7-foot-2 Brown.

“I was just going for a rebound and I was looking for somebody to tag on the blockout,” Brown said, “and it just so happened to be him.”

Brown has earned the nickname Big Mo because of his size, but his six dunks and four blocks in only 20 minutes during the Bruins’ exhibition romp showed that he’s far more than a novelty.

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His surrounding cast includes sophomores Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, who are trying to improve their NBA draft stock after flirting with pro basketball after last season. Wilkes could be the go-to scorer and Hands assumes the primary ballhandling duties from departed point guard Aaron Holiday.

UCLA could go deep into the season in search of leadership. The Bruins’ roster includes no seniors and junior shooting guard Prince Ali will be the only upperclassmen in the rotation to start the season.

Relying on so many freshmen means player development will be essential to the team’s fortunes. Taking over the primary defensive coaching duties will be new assistant Murry Bartow, brought in to address the team’s No. 1 weakness.

“That’s kind of the mission of this team is just, can we get better and each and every day get better and not take steps back?” Alford said. “That’s a hard thing to do but it’s a big key.”

Alford will enter the season without the security of a massive contract buyout. His $3.6-million buyout is only a fraction of the $12 million UCLA gave Jim Mora last year to no longer coach its football team. Alford’s buyout drops to $1 million on May 1.

Will his sixth year with the Bruins lead to a seventh? Alford didn’t seem overly burdened by his fate on the eve of the season opener.

“Whether I’ve been a player or a coach, I’ve never put pressure on myself,” Alford said. “There’s a standard and the standard is, as a player I wanted to be the best prepared and as a coach, I want our guys to be the best prepared. So that’s my standard.”

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