Steve Alford has built momentum at UCLA, but not everyone is impressed. That is the agony and ecstasy of coaching Bruins basketball now and forever, but Alford has never been one to shy away from high stakes.
Earning a chance at the helm of the program John Wooden built is a weighty charge under any conditions. Following Ben Howland, who won a conference title in his final season and was arguably the most successful coach since "The Coach" retired in 1975, added pressure to already heavy expectations.
Howland won the job from Steve Lavin in 2003 after the Bruins plummeted to a historic nadir, which afforded Howland the opportunity to restore shine to an elite brand. The program Alford inherited from Howland won four conference titles in 10 seasons, played in eight NCAA Tournaments, went to three Final Fours and helped develop multiple All-Star caliber NBA players.
Alford knows all too well the lingering glory of the sport's greatest dynasty still clouds expectations in Westwood. To coach at UCLA is to get graded on a curve so steep any contemporary coach would have tough time measuring up.
"In the '60s and '70s, the bar was raised to an incredible level," Alford told SB Nation. "It's a level that I don't think anyone in the country's ever going to attain again. With the parity in college basketball, having to win six neutral court games to win a national title, that is a hard, hard push — but it's one of the things we're competing for every year and that's no different this year."
Alford's first two seasons in charge at UCLA have seen a certain amount of success. In his debut season, the Bruins finished with 28 wins, captured the Pac-12 Tournament and headed into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed before falling to top overall seed Florida in the Sweet 16.
Last season looked to be a down year for UCLA until it snuck into the NCAA Tournament with an unlikely at-large bid, beat SMU in the round of 64 on a controversial ending, then knocked out UAB (who upset Iowa State) to make it back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16.
Only six programs have reached the Sweet 16 each of the last two years, but somehow it doesn't feel like enough for Alford. With a more experienced team back this year, and several highly regarded recruits stepping in, Alford knows the bar has been raised again. He believes his third UCLA team can compete for a conference crown in what he describes as a "wide open, but deeper" Pac-12 field.
(Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)
Last season was a transition year (22-14, 11-7 Pac-12), what with five players turning pro, including NBA first round draft picks Zach LaVine, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson. This year is different, even while losing Norman Powell and freshman star Kevon Looney to the NBA. The Bruins bring back experienced talent all over the roster.
"I think we'll be more versatile than we were last year," Alford says. "We're going to have more depth, especially in the backcourt, to where I think we can do more, keep guys more rested. And then we can put different lineups out there, whether we go with big guards, throw some stretch fours at you. And we obviously have some really good bigs in Thomas Welsh and Tony Parker."
It was not a surprise when 5-star recruit Looney cashed out after one season for the NBA, and UCLA appears ready and poised to plug that hole quickly and sail on. For Alford, the Bruin's interior starts with 6'9 senior Tony Parker and 7-foot sophomore Thomas Welsh.
Parker, a 5-star recruit who has needed four years to develop into a consistent college player, has a chance to shine bright in his final season wearing the UCLA blue and gold.
"TP is a fourth year guy who now really understands this level," says Alford, who believes Parker's irritating, if not infuriating, proclivity for finding foul trouble is trending steadily downward as his maturity ticks upward.
"I think he really has a chance to have a breakout season. He's big, he's physical and he's got a good touch inside," Alford said.
Welsh spent the summer testing himself against top competition as a member of the gold medal-winning USA Basketball team at the Under-19 World Championships. He could begin to establish himself as one of the more difficult players to handle in the Pac-12.
"He's a 7-footer we can put on the block, and we can also pick and pop with him because of his ability to make shots," said Alford, who has seen Welsh become a knock-down 15-foot shooter with his range stretching as his mechanics improve.
One of Welsh's strengths is a natural tendency toward asserting his size. Even in his earliest, awkwardest stages — when tall skinny bigs tend to look like new-born giraffes who don't trust their legs — Welsh attempted to go headfirst at opposing posts no matter the results. Sometimes everything else comes but never that attitude, which is a plus for the Bruins' big man.
"When you look at the under-19s, he's started blocking shots, he became a presence at the rim," Alford says. "He's a much more active big man, which comes with confidence. We saw that late in the year with the good bigs we had a chance to play against."
The wing belongs to Jonah Bolden, who was forced to sit out last season by the NCAA. The Australian prospect, who spent the last year of his high school eligibility between Findlay Prep in Las Vegas and Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, joins the team this year after being deemed a partial qualifier. He's a former ESPN Top 100 recruit and is expected to contribute immediately. Bolden has been practicing with the team since January.
The announcement of his partial qualification and subsequent ineligibility was a gut punch to UCLA's NBA-depleted roster. But the 6'9 swingman is back this season without restrictions, and if he can make the transition from practice to live action, the coach expects he'll be able to hold down the wing for the Bruins.
"He can play our big guard spot but he's also a stretch four," Alford says. "He's a great passer and with his length and the way he shoots the three, we can swing him back and forth. He can post up if we have a mismatch, and we can throw him at the stretch four as well."
Powell will be greatly missed, but the Bruins bring back junior Bryce Alford, their productive, ultra-competitive point guard, and junior Isaac Hamilton, who was inconsistent but continued to improve as the season progressed. The ceiling on Hamilton likely has not been spotted yet.
"He started to develop more of a ‘go to' mentality late in the season, he got more comfortable there," coach Alford said of Hamilton's progression. "I think we forget it was Isaac's first year. He sat out a year because of the transfer and practicing is a heck of a lot different than playing."
Describing Hamilton's immersion into his system as a "feeling out process," Alford believes the 6'4 combo guard will be better equipped in his second season to make smart decisions and put himself in position to showcase his athleticism and scoring aggression.
"I think he'll be much more aggressive this year," Alford said. "I think his decision making will be improved. A lot of the trouble he found last year had to do with him not being familiar or comfortable in game situations, and some of those bad decisions were made because he wasn't sure what we wanted to do. As his decision making gets better, I think his scoring and everything else will go up along with it."
(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)
As much as anything, the Bruins needed backcourt reinforcements. All three primary guards from last year's team played 34 minutes or more in all 36 games. The top three minutes-per were Alford, the departed Powell, and Hamilton at 36, 35 and 34, respectively. The next guard on that list is the grinding role player Noah Allen, at 11 minutes per game. That is hard use on your starting guards from any perspective.
To alleviate that stress, UCLA brought in two top-50 high school guards in Prince Ali, who was originally committed to UConn, and Aaron Holiday, brother of the former Ben Howland Bruin, and current NBA star, Jrue Holiday.
Ali is a 4-star attacking wing out of Sagemont School in Pembroke Pines, Florida. He is praised by scouts, and coach Alford, for an aggressive, competitive attitude that remains consistent at both ends of the floor. Holiday is another 4-star from local Campbell Hall High School in North Hollywood. Ranked the 40th best prospect in the country by Rivals, the 6-foot-1 Holiday can play point guard or wing in Alford's system and is the kind of player who stands out for his ferocious effort on the floor at all times.
At this stage it's difficult to predict the exact role and minutes either player will have, Alford says, while acknowledging both will be "in the mix immediately." He's seen plenty of them over the summer and watched a lot of film, but the old wisdom about not knowing what you have until the artillery is live holds true here.
The two newbies will join Allen and sometimes Bolden in the backcourt. Allen was one of Howland's project players, a wonderfully athletic combination guard who is doing exactly what he was projected to do — develop slowly but contribute immediately through effort and a willingness to work hard.
To become more of a presence, Allen has to become a better in-game shooter, Alford says. The depth itself, particularly when considered alongside its quality, is huge for this year's team, both on the practice floor and on game day.
"The new guys really give us an athleticism that can match what we get with Bryce and Isaac," Alford said. "We can back up Bryce and Isaac with these guys and we can have much more bench power. We can actually get quicker and go more uptempo with these guys off the bench.
"And that depth will really help our vets. You put [Bryce Alford and Hamilton] in the same backcourt with Jonah, or you can go smaller and play Holiday, Prince and Noah, and you have guys that one, we'll be able to practice at a higher level — great practices with great competition — and two, we'll be able to run guys off the bench where we'll actually have some scoring off our bench and play at the pace we want to play."
UCLA has experience from last season's Sweet 16, a roster loaded with former top 100 recruits and a newfound helping of depth. With five-star point guard Lonzo Ball headlining the Bruins' 2016 class, the influx of talent won't stop anytime soon.
That's a good thing for Alford, because expectations aren't met easily at UCLA. Even after back-to-back seasons of reaching the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, Bruins fans want more. It's no small objective, but Alford believes he has the pieces to get there.