Pac-12 play is a week away, but UCLA’s Steve Alford has a more pressing concern: A game vs. Liberty

A three-game skid has increased the heat on UCLA coach Steve Alford, shown during a Dec. 22 game against Ohio State in the CBS Sports Classic.
A three-game skid has increased the heat on UCLA coach Steve Alford, shown during a Dec. 22 game against Ohio State in the CBS Sports Classic.
(Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

The Pac-12 held a teleconference for its basketball coaches Thursday, essentially asking them to talk about each other’s teams with conference play starting next week. It put some coaches in the potentially awkward spot of having to answer questions about teams that are not next on their schedule.

UCLA coach Steve Alford paid the proper homage to Liberty, which will face the Bruins on Saturday afternoon at Pauley Pavilion before they move on to Pac-12 play.

“That’s our biggest concern,” Alford said, “is making sure we take these 40 minutes and we really get ourselves ready for conference play.”


Alford noted that the Flames have a potent low-post threat in forward Scottie James and feature the kind of four-guard lineup that can give UCLA problems.

Then again, almost everyone seems to be troubling the Bruins these days.

UCLA (7-5) will try to break a season-worst three-game losing streak against the Flames (10-4). The Bruins have lost to schools small (Belmont) and large (Cincinnati, Ohio State) during a skid that has increased the heat on Alford from irate fans. It also made nearly every game left on their schedule a must-win for their hopes of securing an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

UCLA checked in at No. 61 in the latest NCAA Evaluation Tool, or NET, which is being used for the first time this season by the selection committee that picks and seeds teams for the NCAA tournament.

Perhaps more worrying than the Bruins’ low rating is that only two Pac-12 teams — Arizona State (No. 31) and Washington (No. 56) — rank ahead of them, meaning there will be few opportunities to log impressive victories over the next two months.

Alford, whose team was picked by the media to finish second in the conference, called the Pac-12 as wide open as it had been in any of his previous five seasons at UCLA.

If nothing else, conference play will give the Bruins a second chance to make a first impression. Alford said his team wanted to be known for causing problems with its size and length defensively while spreading the ball offensively.


It’s rarely met its objectives over the season’s first two months.

Fixing its defense, Alford said, would require sustaining intensity for an entire game rather than playing hard in stretches. The offensive problem could be a bit more complex, involving improved screening, spacing and passing.

“I think our biggest issue has been spacing on offense and as we get better with that,” Alford said, “I think we give ourselves a much better chance of winning in league play.”

It might also help that the Bruins appear to be on the verge of getting power forward Alex Olesinski back. The redshirt junior resumed practicing with the team, though Alford did not provide a timetable for his return.

The next two weeks could represent a last stand of sorts for UCLA’s hopes of pulling out of its funk. The Bruins will play three consecutive games at home, following their final nonconference game with Pac-12 games against Stanford on Jan. 3 and California on Jan. 5.

If it’s not now or never, it’s getting close.

“It’s a big two weeks for us,” Alford said, “to get better.”

Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch