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Bruins’ basketball success seems like ancient pyramid history

Steve Alford opened his first news conference as UCLA basketball coach by saying taking the job was easy.

“It goes back to four letters, U-C-L-A,” Alford said. “I think if it is anywhere else, this is not a decision that would have been made.”

Yet, what those four letters mean is open for interpretation as the NCAA championship banners in the Pauley Pavilion rafters continue to fade with age.

UCLA was once prime real estate in the college basketball world. The Bruins have 11 national titles, 10 won by Coach John Wooden between 1964 and 1975.

But the program that Alford inherited last spring is middle-class. Upper-middle-class to be sure, but the Bruins no longer hobnob with the elite — Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina.

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A chance to alter that status, at least a little, comes Thursday, when UCLA rubs — and trades — elbows with Duke at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The Bruins (9-1) are unranked. The eighth-ranked Blue Devils (8-2) have settled into their annual top-10 spot.

“The national perception of UCLA has changed so much through the years,” said Fran Fraschilla, former Manhattan, St. John’s and New Mexico coach. “When we were growing up, UCLA was nirvana, a premier program with the greatest coach. They had some advantages at that time that I don’t think they have now.”

The game became less regional, with television affecting recruiting. Coaches changed; Alford is the eighth in 36 years to sit in Wooden’s chair. The expectations remain firmly embedded. UCLA just doesn’t often live up to them.

The Bruins have reached a regional final nine times since Wooden retired after his 10th national championship in 1975. They have six Final Four appearances and won the title in 1995.

During the same period, North Carolina has been to 19 regional finals and 13 Final Fours. Kentucky has been to 16 regional finals and eight Final Fours. Duke has been to 15 regional finals and 12 Final Fours. Each has won four national titles since 1975.

Kansas also seems a cut above the Bruins, with more regional finals (12), Final Fours (eight) and national titles (two) since 1975.

And Kentucky creeps ever closer to UCLA’s record of 11 national titles. The Wildcats have eight.

The Bruins seemed ready to rejoin that group under Coach Ben Howland. He had three consecutive Final Four appearances from 2006 to 2008, something former Duke player Jay Bilas said “seems to be forgotten. It’s laughable that it gets glossed over. Name all the programs who have done that the last 10 years.”

Well, North Carolina and Kentucky have done it, and the Tar Heels won two national titles and Kentucky one in that span. Duke went to two Final Fours with one title.

“If you look at the totality of college basketball, then UCLA is an elite program,” former Bruins star Marques Johnson said. “If you’re looking at, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ then no, it is not. Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina have distinguished themselves. UCLA is trying to get back into that echelon.”

Getting there has fallen to Alford, who replaced Howland after the Bruins failed to get past the first weekend in the NCAA tournament for the fifth consecutive season.

What is expected stares back at Alford every day he walks from the locker room to the Pauley Pavilion floor. The walls along the hallway are filled with UCLA basketball history.

“That’s what we aspire to,” Alford said. “There is not another hall like that in the country.”

Getting UCLA off the wall and back into the discussion will not be easy. The landscape has shifted.

UCLA could once attract local talent simply by showing interest. That has changed, something Johnson traces that back to the 1980s, when Los Angeles Crenshaw stars Stephen Thompson and John Williams headed across country. Thompson signed with Syracuse and Williams with Louisiana State.

“Everything became more nationalized in terms of television coverage,” Johnson said.

UCLA still got a share of local players, but Johnson said, “It was no longer a feather in a kid’s cap to be part of UCLA. Other schools became just as attractive.”

Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina all lost national title games to Wooden teams. That has turned. The Bruins have lost 16 of 23 games to those schools since Wooden left. Duke has beaten UCLA in seven of the last nine meetings.

“Growing up in New York, it seemed like every great player went to UCLA,” Fraschilla said. “They even went to UCLA to sit on the bench.”

Now even holding on to Southern California is hard. Two of the area’s top high school players, Mater Dei’s Stanley Johnson and Etiwanda’s Jordan McLaughlin, were not only lost to other schools, they chose UCLA’s Pac-12 Conference rivals — Johnson signed with Arizona and McLaughlin with USC.

“UCLA has a great school and has a great program,” McLaughlin said. “You think of John Wooden and the Pyramid of Success.” But, he said, “I had to choose the right spot for me.”

Nationally, only three of the top-25 high school seniors on ESPN’s top-100 rankings had UCLA on their short list. Duke signed four of the top-25 players; North Carolina and Kentucky each landed three. UCLA signed one, forward Kevon Looney from Milwaukee Hamilton High, who is ranked No. 11.

Alford has gained some recruiting traction by signing Looney and getting Los Angeles Loyola center Thomas Welsh, who is ranked 90th by ESPN. UCLA will also bring in Jonah Bolden, from Australia, and Gyorgy Goloman, from Hungary, who play at prep schools in the United States.

“We haven’t had any problem getting guys interested in looking at UCLA,” Alford said.

Still, none among the top-10 seniors even considered UCLA.

Bilas said that was easy to explain.

“UCLA changed coaches,” said Bilas, a college basketball analyst. “The coaches with top programs have been there a period of time. Oddly enough, the disruption in [UCLA’s] success has been somewhat self-inflicted.”

UCLA coach Steve Lavin was fired after winning fewer than 20 games once in seven seasons — his last season. Jim Harrick won a national title in 1995 but was fired a year later for an NCAA rules violation and lying to athletic department officials. Howland was gone after he won the Pac-12 regular-season championship last season.

No one else has lasted in the job longer than four seasons since Wooden retired.

“You have to stick to a plan,” Bilas said. “That’s not just the coach, that’s the institution. It’s easy to point at the coach. Where it should also be pointed is at the athletic director and president offices. That’s where success starts.”

Bilas said that UCLA had not paid coaches top dollar until recently. Alford signed a seven-year, $18.2-million contract. Even with the bigger paycheck, Bilas said, “There were not a lot of people lining up for that job. That should concern people there.”

Expectations are a big reason.

Success for UCLA basketball remains defined by its success in the NCAA tournament, by fans and boosters, and even by athletic department officials. The Bruins’ NIT championship banner does not hang inside Pauley Pavilion. No one at UCLA knows where that banner is at the moment.

“I don’t know if anyone can reach those expectations because of the ghost of Coach Wooden,” Fraschilla said.

Fraschilla pointed to Howland’s fall as guardian of the Wooden legacy as an example.

“Three Final Fours is a heck of an accomplishment,” Fraschilla said. “In the end, going to the Final Four was not enough. The perception nationally is a lot different than what the typical fan in the UCLA bubble believes. The rest of the country doesn’t think it’s a good job.”

That national perception can be traced in part to the expectations.

“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Bilas said. “That’s true with Steve already. UCLA fans were not in his corner in the beginning. It has not been a smooth voyage.”

But it’s one that has only one acceptable destination.

“We are hoping Steve can take this to the next level,” Marques Johnson said. “Now is the time to bring UCLA back.”

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

e believes. The rest of the country doesn’t think it’s a good job.”

That national perception can be traced in part to the expectations.

“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Bilas said. “That’s true with Steve already. UCLA fans were not in his corner in the beginning. It has not been a smooth voyage.”

But it’s one that has only one acceptable destination.

“We are hoping Steve can take this to the next level,” Marques Johnson said. “Now is the time to bring UCLA back.”

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes


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