UCLA clinches fourth losing conference record in 14 years

Less than two weeks ago, Steve Alford publicly held on to hope. He talked about UCLA’s ability to make a late run, to bolster a resume that had become thinner and thinner since the turn of the new year.

Now, finally, the Bruins seem to have run out of time. A 79-70 loss at Stanford on Saturday clinched them a losing conference record — just the fourth time this has happened in the post-Wooden era. All four occurrences have come in the last 14 years.

UCLA’s path to an NCAA Tournament berth will almost certainly require them to win the Pac-12 Tournament. Judging from the type of basketball these Bruins (15-14, 6-10) have played as of late, however, and that seems like a Sisyphean task.

At Maples Pavilion, UCLA showed little sign that it can fix the problems that have haunted the team all season. It allowed the Cardinal to shoot 61.2 percent from the field, their highest mark of the season. Only one other Pac-12 team — Oregon — had allowed Stanford to clear even 48 percent.

Much of the damage was done inside. Sophomore forward Michael Humphrey scored 24 points, just two points shy of the career high he set against Washington State earlier this month. The 6-foot-9 big man helped give Stanford a 32-18 scoring edge in the paint, corralling four of his team’s nine offensive boards.

UCLA, on the other hand, stayed within striking distance thanks in large part to their efficiency from beyond the arc. Continue reading

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After loss at Cal, UCLA won’t have shot at winning conference record

After a 75-63 loss to Cal, UCLA coach Steve Alford is now 9-17 in Pac-12 road games in three seasons. (Steve McCrank/Staff)

After a 75-63 loss to Cal, UCLA coach Steve Alford is now 9-17 in Pac-12 road games in three seasons. (Steve McCrank/Staff)

Against the Pac-12’s stingiest defense, UCLA needed nearly five minutes to finally make its first field goal. The Bruins never erased that deficit.

A 75-63 loss at Cal on Thursday kept Steve Alford at just two Pac-12 road wins this season, and knocked him down to an uninspiring 9-17 record during his UCLA tenure. With just three games left in the regular season, the Bruins (15-13, 6-9) are now assured their a non-winning conference record for just the fifth time since 1978 — when the league expanded to 10 teams and an 18-game schedule.

The more immediate ramifications are the almost certain erasure of the Bruins’ chances at the NCAA Tournament. If so, it comes in a year that might see the Pac-12 produce as many as seven March Madness bids, the most in the league’s 12-team era.

While losing at Haas Pavilion wasn’t exactly a case of the Bruins playing down to an inferior team, they also didn’t exactly help themselves. They missed their first five shots, finally breaking through on a floater by junior Isaac Hamilton. Throw in three early turnovers, and that meant a 13-1 game-opening run by Cal — not the type of cushion you want to give to a team that is undefeated at home. Continue reading

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Steve Alford: Center Tony Parker will stay in UCLA’s starting lineup

Tony Parker returned to UCLA’s starting lineup last Saturday, helping the Bruins to a 77-53 win over Colorado. The senior center will keep that role for at least one more game.

Steve Alford said Tuesday that he will keep the 6-foot-9 Parker in his starting five for Thursday’s 6 p.m. tipoff at Cal — relegating 7-foot sophomore Thomas Welsh to the bench. The third-year head coach emphasized that his changes over the last month have not been made to penalize either player.

“Whether it’s Tony or Tom, it’s not a discipline or punishment standpoint,” Alford said.

He added that he is also open to playing both Parker and Welsh together again in a “big-big” lineup if the matchup proves beneficial. The combination, which UCLA used for most of the season before making sophomore Jonah Bolden its starting power forward, gave the team some offensive advantages at the cost of its defense.

Regardless of who Alford plays, he’ll need to figure out how to beat a Cal team that is 16-0 at Haas Pavilion this season. The Bears hold opponents to just 38.8 percent from the field, easily the lowest mark in the Pac-12, and also rank first in the conference in defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy. Alford praised their athleticism and their size, pointing out the presence of star freshman Ivan Rabb as well as 7-footers Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh.

“They really just tee it up one-on-one and say, ‘You’re not gonna beat us one-on-one,'” Alford said. “That’s a great thing to have, because you don’t see them having to help a lot. And because they don’t help a lot, they don’t give up a lot of open looks. They make open looks hard on you.”

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UCLA coach Steve Alford changes motivational tactics amid struggles

UCLA coach Steve Alford said this year's Bruins don't respond as well to "mental pressure" as last year's team. (David Crane/Staff)

UCLA coach Steve Alford said this year’s Bruins don’t respond as well to “mental pressure” as last year’s team. (David Crane/Staff)

As UCLA continues to hover near the bottom of the Pac-12, head coach Steve Alford said he’s had to adjust how he motivates his Bruins.

Recently, that’s meant fewer references to the big picture, one that has the team sitting uncomfortably outside almost every NCAA Tournament projection. With just three weeks left in his third regular season in Los Angeles, Alford said his latest group of players has not responded as well to pressure as their predecessors.

“That’s been me, not them,” he added. “Anytime I’ve applied a little bit of that mental pressure, we haven’t handled it well. It’s learning your team. Last year’s team handled that really well.”

After starting 2016 with back-to-back losses at Washington and Washington State, the Bruins (14-11, 5-7) have yet to move above .500 at any point in conference play. If that trend holds, it will be a first for the program since the league expanded to 10 teams in 1978.

But that’s exactly the sort of thing that Alford doesn’t want his team to think about. A year ago, stressing urgency worked for UCLA, something that the coach attributed in part to the presence of senior guard Norman Powell.

This season, the staff has learned that it’s better to steer the team’s focus in a different way. One difference is by integrating “three keys” for each game, so as to keep the Bruins from getting overloaded with information during game-week preparation.

“The way we respond to things, I think, is a little bit different,” said junior point guard Bryce Alford. “I think we’ve done a better job when our coaches give us a one-game scenario.”

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