Steve Alford contemplated UCLA’s struggles and found solace in an unlikely place: an even rougher patch.
Four years ago, UCLA was in the midst of a five-game losing streak in late December. The Bruins had finished seventh in an eight-team tournament, lost by 39 points to Kentucky and were only a few games above .500 heading into Pac-12 Conference play.
They ended up not only getting into the NCAA tournament but advancing to a regional semifinal.
“It’s not like it can’t be done,” the Bruins coach said Saturday.
That’s true, but the Bruins face what feels like even more of a vertical climb after their latest setback. UCLA’s 80-66 loss to No. 15 Ohio State at the United Center in the CBS Sports Classic left the Bruins with no notable victories during the nonconference portion of their schedule.
It also gave UCLA (7-5) its first three-game losing streak since January and increased the heat on Alford to what feels like a sauna stuck on its highest setting after a few notable alumni recently criticized the way he runs the team.
“I get that,” Alford said when asked about discontent with the program. “I’m a fan of basketball. I’m not happy. I’m not happy with our losses. I’m not happy with what happened Wednesday night [against Cincinnati] and obviously not happy with getting a loss [Saturday], but we’re working, we’re grinding, trying to stay positive with a young group, an inexperienced group.”
The Bruins were competitive for about 35 minutes before fading amid an 11-1 push by Ohio State (11-1) that included a Kyle Young dunk off a halfcourt lob. The Buckeyes extended their lead to 15 points with five minutes left after finally solving UCLA’s 2-3 zone, and that was that.
Guard C.J. Jackson scored 20 of his 22 points in the second half for Ohio State, which made 48.4% of its shots after halftime as opposed to shooting only 36.1% in the first half.
The first half might have belonged entirely to the Bruins, who played strong defense and largely sustained their intensity, had they not committed 12 turnovers. The sloppiness resulted in a 33-30 halftime deficit.
“Honestly, I think we just got too excited,” said forward Kris Wilkes, who scored 13 of his team-high 18 points over the opening 20 minutes. “We got the ball; we got careless. We got real happy.”
Alford seemed pleased that UCLA’s showing represented a step forward from its 29-point loss to Cincinnati, when it wilted quickly after a strong start. The biggest problems in his view were making only four of 18 three-point shots (22.2%) and getting manhandled 15-8 on the offensive boards.
“I’m not seeing them not being confident,” Alford said of the players. “I loved the effort. I loved the shot selection. I’m probably just most disappointed in the board play because we should be a good rebounding team.”
Point guard Jaylen Hands was strong across the board with 13 points, nine assists, five steals and five rebounds to go with four turnovers, but it wasn’t nearly enough against an opponent that was far more physical despite facing a decided height disadvantage.
UCLA will head into Pac-12 play next month having beaten only one major conference-opponent, Notre Dame. That’s one more brand-name nonconference school than the Bruins defeated in 2014-15, the season they rebounded from an 8-7 start to make the NCAA tournament.
Alford noted that the Pac-12 doesn’t appear to be as strong this season based on its results in nonconference games. That means UCLA will probably need to pile up conference victories or win the Pac-12 tournament to reach the NCAA tournament based on having achieved nothing of consequence over the season’s first two months.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do from that standpoint because that year we had a little bit more, I think opportunities, in league play to get big wins,” Alford said of the 2014-15 season, “and this year out of conference, our league hasn’t performed well.”
Count the Bruins among the culprits, though Alford noted that the young team continues to gain experience and could get one of its leaders back next week if junior forward Alex Olesinski can return from the fractured foot that has sidelined him all season.
Speculation about Alford’s future with the Bruins won’t be among his worries, the coach said.
“There’s no issue with that with me,” Alford said. “I just do my job as well as I possibly can and that’s what I do every day. I’m a man of God, so I’ve got an audience of one, and I shoot it up every day, work as hard as I can for my guys and at the end of the day, if I know that I’ve prepared and worked hard, then that’s what matters to me.”