The words stretch across a banner that hangs inside UCLA’s basketball practice facility, a blue-and-gold mantra intended to remind players of the payoff for all their efforts.
“Work, think and have fun!” reads the saying.
The Bruins have gone 0 for 3 in those areas during a three-game losing streak that has drained the joy of the game from players and coaches alike while placing their season on the edge of ruin.
“To me, we’re overthinking, not working the way we need to work,” coach Steve Alford said Friday, “and because of that, we’re not having the fun that we want to have.”
Alford said the catchphrase he posted inside the Mo Ostin Center came from his father, Sam, who instilled a winning mind-set in the sharpshooting guard as his high school coach and remains a trusted confidante.
Alford said his team having fallen short across the board is largely a function of having so many players still learning how to approach the game; UCLA’s 10-man rotation has included six freshmen, three sophomores and one junior.
“A lot of young players try to have fun before they understand work,” Alford said. “Or they have fun before they think.”
Sophomore point guard Jaylen Hands acknowledged struggling with the middle part of the mantra heading into a must-win game for UCLA (7-5) on Saturday afternoon against Liberty (10-4) at Pauley Pavilion in the Bruins’ nonconference finale.
“I think the overthinking part is putting maybe a little too much pressure on ourselves to do the right thing instead of just knowing what we have to do,” Hands said.
Hands said the Bruins needed to better execute concepts such as spacing on offense and sustaining effort on defense to alleviate that pressure. Alford said he was trying to help by simplifying his practice plans.
“Just get the basics down fundamentally both offensively and defensively to free their minds up a little bit,” Alford said. “Maybe it’s bigs pivoting, maybe it’s guards posting, whatever the simple things are, just making the fundamentals a little bit simpler for them.”
That might accelerate the learning curve for an offense that Hands said was not easy to pick up quickly.
“You know, high school, you’re taught to just get the ball and go, especially everyone probably being the best player on their team,” Hands said. “So it’s harder to get an understanding of how to space, how to let other people create, how to get good shots; it will take some time.”
With only one game left before Pac-12 Conference play starts, that’s one thing the Bruins don’t have in abundance.
When: 3 p.m., Saturday.
Where: Pauley Pavilion.
On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 570.
Update: Alford said redshirt junior power forward Alex Olesinski, who has been sidelined for more than two months by a fractured foot, could make his season debut against Liberty, though he would be on a minutes restriction. Olesinski averaged 4.5 points and 3.9 rebounds last season in 17.9 minutes per game off the bench.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch