It's always a good thing when a coach delivers a solid chunk of money to the program they represent. Unless, of course, that money comes from a coach returning the contract extension he'd just been given months earlier because he felt his team's performance in the succeeding season had been "unacceptable."
Such was the case with UCLA head coach Steve Alford, who wrote a letter to Bruins fans in late March to announce that he would be returning a previously agreed-upon one-year extension to his contract that was set to keep him in Los Angeles through the 2020-21 season.
"The way we finished this past season will eat at me for a long, long time," Alford wrote. "Our record speaks for itself and is simply unacceptable. There is nothing I can say or write that will change that fact. This happened under my watch, and it begins and ends with me. The buck stops here.
"While I don't expect his letter to change any opinions or take away the pain from this difficult season, I do hope it reflects my commitment to UCLA and that we will address areas in which we fell short."
The letter came on the heels of a season in which UCLA went 15-17, its first losing campaign since a disastrous 10-19 performance in 2002-03 that resulted in the firing of Steve Lavin, and an 11-17 effort the next year under new head coach Ben Howland.
Even with the elimination of the one-year extension, Alford is still under contract through 2020 and has a buyout provision that could earn him as much as $10.4 million if the school decides to fire him. It's an unattractive option for UCLA, but one which the fan base has entertained consistently over the last several months following a three-year start to the Alford era that has also included a pair of Sweet 16 exits in which the Bruins were beaten by double-digits.
There's reason to believe this marriage could still work, and that belief comes in the form of a top 10 recruiting class headlined by Lonzo Ball, one of the more unique talents that college basketball will have seen in some time. Ball's talents will allow the Bruins to play a different style than the one which has frustrated fans in The Hills for the last three years. If it works, Alford could finally be able to shed the stigma of a coach who has been uniformly promoted despite having never coached in a regional final.
PG Lonzo Ball, freshman
SG Bryce Alford, senior
SF Isaac Hamilton, senior
PF T.J. Leaf, freshman
C Thomas Welsh, junior
Key reserves: G Aaron Holiday (sophomore), G Prince Ali (sophomore), F Gyorgy Goloman (junior), F Alex Olesinski (sophomore), F Ike Anigbogu (freshman), C Ikenna Okwarabizie (junior)
How UCLA can succeed: Make the appropriate stylistic changes necessary to showcase Lonzo Ball's skills
As unhappy as Bruin fans have been about the product under Alford, it's still been a three-year period that has included a healthy dose of both talent and spotlight wins. Even last year, in the middle of their worst season in more than a decade, UCLA managed to score a pair of top 10 win over No. 1 Kentucky, No. 7 Arizona and No. 20 Gonzaga.
The issue has been that in an attempt to allow his team's talent to blossom, Alford has an up-tempo style that has zero effective defensive strategy against teams with the ability to play the same way. The result is blowout losses to teams like North Carolina and USC (three times last season), and not much hope of competing with the best teams left in the NCAA Tournament after the opening weekend.
That should change with the addition of Ball, the oldest of three highly-talented brothers all pledged to play their college basketball for Alford. The 6'5 point guard averaged a triple-double last season for undefeated Chino Hills, one of the best high school teams this country has seen in some time. Ball can score from any spot on the floor (although his outside shot can be streaky), he has the length and athleticism to be a capable defender, and he has an unbelievable ability to appear completely in control while also playing at the fastest pace possible.
The addition of Ball to the Bruin backcourt should also free up Bryce Alford, the coach's son, to assume his more natural role of pure shooting guard. The team was overly reliant on the younger Alford to both score, distribute and defend one of the opponents' best perimeter players last season, and the results were disastrous. Leading returning scorer Isaac Hamilton (16.8 ppg) should also have more space to operate, which should lead to an increase in field goal percentage and a decrease in his 2.4 turnovers per game average.
UCLA won't play slower this season, but with Ball running the show, they figure to look more like a team with a cognizant game plan, and less like a 13-year-old AAU team.
How the Bruins can go home early: Lack of frontcourt depth, lack of chemistry
There are no guarantees when a team is going to be centered around a star freshman, especially when said team returns a healthy dose of veterans with experience. Kevin Durant was the national Player of the Year in 2007, but he still couldn't do enough to get Texas into the Sweet 16. D'Angelo Russell produced similarly gaudy numbers and the exact same postseason result in his one season at Ohio State.
For whatever reason, Alford's UCLA teams, even when they've experienced some success, have never seemed to be entirely on the same page. Some will claim nepotism as the basis for that, but whatever the reason, it's a trend that must change for the Bruins to make the jump from "capable of beating anyone and losing to anyone" to "legitimate Final Four threat."
The Bruins suffered their first loss of the 2016-17 season in July, when part-time starter Jonah Bolden announced that he would be foregoing his final two years of collegiate eligibility to play professionally. Bolden, who averaged 4.6 points and 4.8 rebounds while starting 11 games last season, figured to be the most athletic returning member of the UCLA frontcourt.
Bolden's departure puts additional pressure on freshman T.J. Leaf, the No. 16 player in the 2016 class according to Rivals.com, to live up to the hype right out of the gate. UCLA also needs to see some dramatic improvement from former McDonald's All-American center Thomas Welsh, who averaged 11.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game last season, but failed to show consistency for a second straight season. Five-star freshman Ike Anigbogu also figures to push for playing time at either the four or the five, or both.
If Welsh, Leaf and Anigbogu can't combine to form a capable frontcourt, then Alford will be forced to turn to a handful of big men who have failed to produce much in college so far.