What’s next for UCLA men’s basketball under Steve Alford?

After guiding UCLA to one of its worst seasons in recent memory, what questions are facing Steve Alford and the Bruins? (Stephen Carr/Staff)

After guiding UCLA to one of its worst seasons in recent memory, what questions are facing Steve Alford and the Bruins? (Stephen Carr/Staff)

Was it a bad season? Yes. Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. Finishing with an overall record of 15-17 would qualify as bad for most major programs, let alone the one that holds more national titles than anyone else.

There shouldn’t be much dispute about this, but Steve Alford emphasized this week that the Bruins shouldn’t be dinged for a “bad season” — only for a bad two-and-a-half months. But given that the whole season only lasts about four months, this seems like a case of splitting hairs.

Most coaches should be granted leeway for the occasional bad season. It’s the timing of this season — as as well as the way it unfolded — that should cause concern about the viability of the Alford era. Yes, he reached the Sweet 16 twice, but had the benefit of inheriting a number of future NBA players. This season featured a roster almost entirely of his own design. Despite that, this team saved its worst basketball for last, losing its last five games by an average of nearly 12 points.

Can a top recruiting class turn things around? Perhaps. The nature of modern college basketball helps facilitate quick turnarounds, with one-and-done players making the type of impact that isn’t feasible in other sports. As the season spiraled down, Alford made increasingly frequent references to his top-five group of signees. He did so with good reason: Lonzo Ball is as well regarded as any point guard prospect in recent memory, and T.J. Leaf should make the frontcourt much more offensively skilled.

But Ben Howland also brought in a loaded recruiting class before his final season, landing Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson, Tony Parker and Jordan Adams in what was a No. 2-ranked haul. While that helped the Bruins go from 19-14 to a Pac-12 title, a 20-point loss to Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA Tournament still cost Howland his job. Perhaps they would have made a deeper run had Adams not broken his foot in the Pac-12 Tournament (or if Muhammad had been in better shape to start the season). Still, other cracks were showing: Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb both transferred out early in the season; Parker was unhappy about his playing time all year and publicly noncommittal about staying; Norman Powell said he would have left had Howland not been fired.

Will everyone be back? Parker is the only player who has exhausted his eligibility, which should give UCLA some veteran experience to balance its infusion of young talent. That is, of course, assuming that no current players look elsewhere.

With Ball coming in, there’s going to be a logjam in the backcourt. Ideally, Bryce Alford would cede a lot of ballhandling duties to the incoming freshman phenom, whose elite vision and playmaking ability will likely be the catalyst for UCLA’s offense. But that leaves freshman Aaron Holiday in an odd spot after starting all 32 games, and was often the team’s most dogged perimeter defender — a particularly valuable trait on a team that ranked No. 130 nationally in defensive efficiency. Might he be bound for a role off the bench as a sophomore?

“I have no idea,” he said. “It’s not up to me. It’s up to coach. We’ll see what happens.”

In even worse position is Prince Ali, who played a grand total of 20 minutes through the last four games of the season. The Bronx native never looked comfortable after suffering a leg injury in early December, but it’s not clear how well he’d develop if he can’t carve out more playing time.

How hot is Steve Alford’s seat? It’s certainly not going to be comfortable. UCLA is missing out on March Madness during a year that the Pac-12 earned a record seven bids — including one for USC, which is appearing in an NCAA Tournament that doesn’t include the Bruins for the first time since 1985.

There’s no good way to spin that. If UCLA misses the field for a second straight year, Alford will certainly be gone. On the other hand, it’s difficult to see the Bruins dismissing him if he wins the conference and/or makes a Sweet 16 run.

Also worth noting: Alford’s buyout remains at $10.4 million until May 1, 2017, which means the financial burden of firing him next year is the same as it is right now. (Clarification: It would be paid in monthly installments until 2021, and be offset if Alford obtains another job. The two parties could also negotiate a lower lump sum payment.) Had UCLA not given him a one-year extension after his first season, his buyout would have dropped to $7.8 million on the same date this year, and to $5.2 million next year.

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  • Sam Bam

    Prince Ali is rumored to be considering transferring. UCLA has a tough road ahead even with this great recruiting class. Defense, and Bryce Alford trying to share the ball with Hamilton, Holiday and the incoming freshmen Lonzo Ball, well that sounds easier said than done…

    • Tim Smith

      source of rumor? This was an opinion by BRO. There was no source and they did not claim a source. Merely, editorial.

      • Sam Bam

        Read it on a Bruin site two days ago. You obviously read what I read. I don’t think the guy would start making things up about a player on a team who just finished with a 15-17 record, no offense.

        • Tim Smith

          Bruins Nation linked to the unsourced BRO editorial. He was not making anything up. He did not claim it to be a rumor. Bruins Nation claimed it to be a rumor, but when you look at their “source,” it consisted solely of their writer admittedly speculating “why would he stay?”

          • NYC Bruin

            Because Bruins Nation is a complete joke and they are trolling for clicks.

          • Nicholas Le Mero

            AT Bruins Nation they use to have a gestapo like guy name Nestor who was replaced by another gestapo type name DC Bruin. He just ban you if he does not like your input!

          • NYC Bruin

            They are UCLA jihadists.

          • 88 Straight

            DC is nothing like Nestor or Tydides. The site has improved. The stories about Prince Ali have reported on BRO.

          • Tim Smith

            DC Bruin is actually far from the worst. Their main gestapo is this broad named Bruinette88. But they are smart enough not to put her in a spot of total control. That mantle goes to a chap named Joe something or other. not as bad as bruinette, but pretty bad.

          • Nicholas Le Mero

            Well ! DC Bruin always has to say something negative on almost all the Pac-12. coaches like Andy Enfield, or the Huskies being badly coached, Ernie Kent does not know how to coach, . Sean Miller is a bad offensive coach, and of course at the bottom Steve Alford. Well then since nobody seems to know how to coach except him , how come nobody has hired him?

          • Tim Smith

            correct

        • SlipperyPete

          You are actually giving weight to something from Bruins Nation? Hey I have a way for you to make a bunch of money really quick. I am a prince in Nigeria and I am unable to transfer my vast wealth. Please send me your bank account information and PIN and I will gladly pay you $100,000.

          • Sam Bam

            Now you just sound like Slippin’ Jimmy. I won’t fall for any of Slippin’ Jimmy’s trickery…

        • NYC Bruin

          Love you Sam, but Bruins Nation is about as much of a news source as an ISIS propaganda twitter account.

          • Sam Bam

            The writer reminds me of Scott Wolf. He’s always bashing the Bruins like Wolf bashes SC.

          • NYC Bruin

            I actually think that’s unfair to Wolf.

          • Sam Bam

            I’ll take your word for it.

    • The Big Woof!

      Prince has not lived up to his reputation. Aside from the one spectacular dunk, he’s disappointed. He lacks an outside shot, has shown poor decision making and like most on the team, no good defensive skills. He would need a lot of work and improvement to [lay significant minutes nest year.

  • Tim Smith

    Jack: please report the buyout accurately. Nobody in the media is correctly reporting this. I would encourage you to read the buyout clause. If Alford is fired tomorrow, or anytime before May 1, 2017, UCLA is NOT obligated to pay him $10.4 mil. They just aren’t. They would pay that amount in monthly payments through 2012. In other words, they would simply continue to pay his salary as if he were still here. There is a huge difference between coming up with 10.4 million as a buyout, and paying that amount over a 5 year span. MORE IMPORTANTLY, if/when he obtains a new job, his new salary offsets the buyout. If we fire him tomorrow, and he gets a job making $2.1 million per season, UCLA’s buyout obligation is ZERO.

    • Richard

      5/1/17 or 5/1/16 ? Thot it was 2016. And the total $10.4 goes down to what if he’s terminated after the applicable date ?

      • Jack Wang

        2017, because of the one-year extension.

        • Tim Smith

          good job. you are now literally the only reporter in LA reporting this correctly!

    • Jack Wang

      Added a clarification.

  • jim

    Another question is ‘will he be able to hold onto those recruits’? Commitments nowadays mean nothing. After this horrible season, a lot of those players might just decide to de-commit and go somewhere else(Maybe SC). I remember in 2012, Lane Kiffen(SC football) had maybe the greatest recruiting class for 2013 lined up that has ever existed. There were about 14 players from SC who were scheduled to play in the Army allstar game. That game has never had 14 players from one school. Then SC had that pathetic season in 2012 and about 9 of those guys de-committed and went somewhere else. I have a sneaky suspicion that next year will be Alfords last. Unless, he has a great year and lines up a great recruiting class for 2018, I don’t think that he will be back. He got to the 1st or 2nd round of the tournament at New Mexico. That was fine at New Mexico. Their fans don’t expect so much. This is not New Mexico. This is UCLA.

    • Tim Smith

      LOIs already signed. Entire Ball family has already said its UCLA regardless of coach. Not to mention, one and dones do not transfer. They will be in the NBA within 12 months…why sit out a year?

      • jim

        The 2016 recruits are signed but not the 2017 recruits. Balls brother will probably come but it might be hard to get other great players if UCLA continues to finish in the middle of the pack in the Pac-12. Some coaches can win without great players but I’m not sure that this one can.

  • The Big Woof!

    Holiday and Alford would both be better providing spark coming off the bench next year. Just hope Hamilton doesn’t decide his good year warrants leaving early for the NBA. If he were to leave, our outside shooting would be very suspect.

  • The Big Woof!

    Number one priority for next year, regardless of coach or personnel:
    DEFENSE!

  • 88 Straight

    That’s an interesting take. Not an accurate or informed take, but interesting. UCLA played horrible defense all the way to a 6-12 record. Whoever wins the championship will be a team that plays good defense. Offense alone won’t get it done.

    • Nicholas Le Mero

      We’ll see!

      • 88 Straight

        We already have. Duke won last year. Did they play defense? All Coack K’s teams play defense. And they had a great inside game with Okafor. Who did they beat? Wisconsin. An outstanding defensive team. Defense ALONE won’t win as we saw with Howland. Neither will offense alone. It’s all about balance.

        • The Big Woof!

          Agree completely, 88! @ Nicolas, one way to make sure you score more than the other team is to defend the 3 point shot, something we did very poorly this year. Also there is the ‘old fashioned 3’ caused by fouling a player who makes a layup and then a free throw, another area that showed up our poor defense.

          • Nicholas Le Mero

            Difficult to defend the 3s, even with someone in your face All you have to do is what Bryce did against Tarczewski. He faked the penetration then step back from him and buried the 3 points for the win.

          • 88 Straight

            Having a strong inside game helps open up the three and make it harder to defend. An extra split second can greatly increase a shooters percentage behind the arc. Plus, a missed 3 often leads to a fast break opportunity for the opposition. Most successful teams have an inside presence on both sides of the floor. A good inside game is like a good running game in football.

          • The Big Woof!

            Tarczewski is a big! If proper defense had been played Bryce would have had a quicker defender on him and could not have made that move and gotten as open. Only Steph Curry and a miniscule few others can be successful with that move. Plus he misses that shot far more often than he makes it, especially against quality defenders. 3’s are fine but they must be quality 3’s. Just jacking up long shots is not going to win games.

        • Nicholas Le Mero

          It’s all about balance ….and I agree! . My point was and is that with the 3 points shots the game balance is more and more been thrown out of whack,because they are easier to make than trying to score underneath with the big men presence and you get 3 points instead of 2! So why not take advantage of it! Since its implementation, the percentage of 3-points shots attempted and made has steadily been on the increase and it is going to get worse until they get rid of them.

          I see the same thing developing in football with the Quarterback being able to run beyond the line of scrimmage like any running back which is more and more what we are seeing and will continue to see, unless it is disallowed. The future under the current rule will be a quarterback who will be a physically strong athlete instead of a throwing machine, able to run and especially take a hit like a running back to try to gain as much yards as possible instead of taking the slide feet first. That’s the way the game is more and more heading if that’s the way you want it to be played.

          I would not allow the quarterback to run pass the line of scrimmage, otherwise why having two running back unless they can throw the ball like a quarterback which is not that difficult with a strong arm and practice. Much easier to be accurate that with your feet in soccer.
          I played also football in a semi- pro league after a career in professional soccer in France. I always had a weak arm and basically had never thrown a football except occasionally before those semi-pro games where I was the kicker. After a high snap for an extra point that went over my head, I chased after the ball, picked it up and threw a perfect 30 yards plus spiral into the receiver hands for the extra-point score while being hit in the chest during my throwing motion..

          .

  • MPPBruin

    I’ll just settle for a season where we don’t have do a bunch of soul searching when its over. I’m tired of agonizing over which fringe first round talent will jump to the NBA or whether we should fire our coach or not. This program needs some stability.

  • EncinitasBruin

    Jack with teeth? I like it.

  • Nicholas Le Mero

    Middle Tennessee shredded Michigan State’s trademark defense, shooting 56 percent overall and 58 percent from 3-point range. proved my point that the 3’s are the difference