Bruins’ many weaknesses are exposed by the Trojans in Pac-12 Conference tournament
Those wonderful March cliches often associated with UCLA basketball quickly disappeared Wednesday, stolen by their neighbors, dangled above their despair.
No dancing here, only stumbling and staggering and finishing flat on a casino floor.
No madness, only moping and meandering and missed layup after missed layup.
No Cinderella, only a wicked USC that won a third consecutive game in one season against the Bruins for the first time in 74 years.
The final score in the first round of the Pac-12 Conference tournament was 95-71. The final stake pounded into the most disappointing UCLA season in recent memory was a profound one.
“It’s hard to believe, honestly,” UCLA’s Bryce Alford said.
Hard to believe? Where to do you want to start?
The Bruins finish the season with a 15-17 record after entering the new year at 9-4 with victories over the likes of Kentucky and Gonzaga.
“It stops and starts with me,” Coach Steve Alford said. “I did not do a good job in two months with these guys.”
After consecutive Sweet 16 appearances, the Bruins will fail to make the NCAA tournament for only the third time in 10 years.
“It’s hard to even describe,” Bryce Alford said. “We picked this place because we’re supposed to win games.”
As amazing as anything was the scene I encountered afterward in the bowels of the MGM Grand Garden Arena. For the first time in covering 20 years worth of Bruins postseasons, I was initially the only reporter in the UCLA locker room. This Bruins team was worse than bad, it was irrelevant.
“It’s tough going out this way,” said Tony Parker, the lone Bruins senior. “That’s all I can say to you.”
They went out quick. The Trojans knocked them to the ground in the first three minutes, then spent the rest of the game standing over them and glaring. With clearly better athletes who were obviously more in sync, USC jumped to an 11-0 lead, making UCLA work for nearly four minutes to score its first basket, and it never felt close again.
That the Trojans outscored the Bruins, 264-207, in their three games made total sense when watching just three moments.
Jordan McLaughlin flew over seemingly the entire UCLA defense for a dunk and nobody could stop him. Julian Jacobs threw a perfect alley-oop pass to Chimezie Metu for a dunk over Thomas Welsh, and nobody could stop it. Bennie Boatwright grabbed an offensive rebound over three Bruins, and several passes later Elijah Stewart nailed a three-pointer, and, no, nobody came close to stopping it.
By the middle of the second half, the Trojans were scolding the Bruins with wagging fingers, entertaining their bench with can’t-stop-me shakes of the head, and causing their raucous student section to chant and cheer with every possession.
The UCLA student section? You mean those dozen or so kids sitting behind the band?
“This time of year we’ve always played our best basketball, we’ve kind of flipped a switch, but this year we just couldn’t find our identity,” Bryce Alford said.
What could have been their identity was playing for USC, as Metu, McLaughlin and Boatwright are Southern California kids who chose the Trojans over the Bruins. Part of this season’s failures can indeed be pegged to Alford’s recruiting struggles, with more development needed from the likes of Prince Ali, Jonah Bolden and Aaron Holiday. In this area, next season should be better, as Steve Alford brings in the nation’s No. 3-ranked recruiting class.
The other failure runs deeper, into a locker room culture that lost its toughness with the departure of Norman Powell and Kevon Looney, and this lack of toughness ruined them defensively.
“Defensively we’re so bad in so many areas, and that falls on me and the coaches,” Steve Alford said. “We’ve got to get our culture back. For two years had our culture rolling, and now we have to get it back.”
Alford is clearly taking the blame here, and good for him. But he’s not getting fired because of this, nor should he be fired. Fans are understandably furious, there’s even been petitions calling for Alford’s ouster, but among UCLA’s adminisration his job security is not even a serious question. His previous two seasons, consecutive Sweet 16 appearances matched by only four other teams during that time, have earned him the benefit of the doubt that he can figure this out.
But make no mistake. That benefit ends after next season. Just ask the last UCLA coach to not reach the NCAA tournament, in 2012. Ben Howland had the Bruins back in the tournament the next season, but they were blown out by Minnesota in the first round and he was blown out of Westwood soon thereafter.
“What happened this year not only shakes the players but also the coaches, we all have to do a better job,” Alford said.
Meanwhile, USC could not have possibly done a better job Wednesday night, with one exception. At one point, its fans were taunting the Bruins with a chant of “N-I-T ... N-I-T ... N-I-T.”
Sorry folks, but these Bruins are not good enough for the NIT. They’re not good enough to go anywhere but where they went for the last two months. On Wednesday night, it was a trip that appropriately ended in nowhere.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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