We’re all getting to know UCLA right now. Will they play fast? Well? With a point guard? Recruit well? Collapse? Thrive? With Steve Alford at the helm, I’m fascinated. And it’s not so much an Alford thing as it is a UCLA thing. Alas, he’s in charge and he’s only going to be successful if he’s allowed to be his own man. He had that at New Mexico whereas at Iowa, it seemed he was still that hot shot Indiana kid, biding his time to take the lead chair in Bloomington. He never quite got it going there. But now he has no other chairs to fill. This is it. Steve Alford has reached the pinnacle of college basketball coaching – by way of job title – and it’s one of the most unique jobs around. The nameplate in his office drips with history and the expectations of a pyramid that he must uphold. A glorious set of standards but not necessarily Steve’s. Step one is surely to respect that history and embrace himself. Prepare yourself for me to opine on this a lot in the coming months.
Why I love them: The mid-range game is a dying art and understandably so. It’s the longest distance from the basket with the lowest reward (2 points). That’s high risk, low reward. There are defenses designed (like the packline at Arizona) to force teams into shooting mostly in this area. Last year, the Wildcats forced 39% of shots from that range. UCLA, meanwhile, took 44% of their shots in that range (compared to 29% at the rim and 24% beyond the arc). Subsequently the Bruins swept the Wildcats in three games. MATH! And the man I want to highlight here is Jordan Adams. He’s a terrific talent that got lost behind Shabazz and his very similar game. Did you know Adams made zero post-season lists? I mean, honorable mention all-freshmen, sure, but damn. Welcome back Pac? He’s one of seven returning Pac players to score 15ppg last year. He’s going to score in bunches and greatly utilize that 2-pt jump shot. Last year he took 40% of his shots from there and made them at a 45% clip – the highest rate of any contributing Bruin (only Josh Smith, yes that guy, and Tony Parker had higher FG% there). Now it’s worth noting here that there was a regime change in Westwood – I’m not sure if you noticed – and so one might wonder if that will have an effect on the Bruins’ style of play. The short answer is: duh. However, with regards to what we’ve been discussing here, we can peak at New Mexico’s shot distribution. In 2012-13 the Lobos took about 36% of their shots from 2pt jumper-town. Alford offenses are generally deliberate and predicated on set plays, getting a shooter – say, Jordan Adams? – an open jump shot. Conclusive? Hardly, but if you’re touting a team who’s primary ball handler is likely to be a 6’9″ bad three point shooter and that has the Wear family, I imagine there will continue to be jumpers abound in Westwood.
Why I hate them: Kyle Anderson is a very talented basketball player. That’s not why I hate the Bruins, mind you. Kyle’s so talented that this is his final season at UCLA. It’s yet to be determined if he can be the primary ball handler – as I think he’ll need to be – for a highly competitive basketball team but that doesn’t really concern me. Kyle Anderson at the 1 is a defensive liability and defense is the cornerstone of Steve Alford teams. He’s never coached a team who’s AdjD didn’t rank in the top-100. He’s also never coached a team without a direction in its name to the sweet sixteen (Southwest Missouri State, 1999 S16). No one is soon to call Jordan Adams a stopper. Same with the Wear family (who by the way are remarkably solid basketball players with roles escalated beyond what they’re equipped to produce). Norman Powell is a great athlete and might be their best defensive player but ultimately, I’m not certain this group of Bruins can play the excellent defense that’s going to be asked of them.
Stat you need to know:
Percent increase in AdjT between Steve Alford’s last 11 seasons (67.11) as compared to Ben Howland’s last 11 seasons (66.22). Personally, I think style of play is overrated. One of my favorite hoops fans has little to no problem annually cheering his Badgers to 24 wins on about 60 possessions/game. Winning is all that matters. I’ll judge Steve’s left column.
And so year one of the Alford experiment gets underway. Coach Alford was not the guy many of us wanted, (that would be Stevens, Donovan, Pitino, Shaka, etc.) but he’s the coach we’ve got, and so we support him. I especially like his hiring of assistant coach Ed Schilling, who previously ran Adidas Nations and has great credibility as a clinician. I could also see Alford being a guy the players get up for, which is something we sorely lacked in the last few years of the Howland regime.
We’ve got solid depth on the wings, but the questions this season hinge on who will be running the point and who will separate themselves down low. For my money, I hope we see Kyle Anderson as the primary ball handler, with Wanaah Bail and Tony Parker getting meaningful minutes over the same old Wears. Be ready for quick and loud cries of nepotism should the young Bryce Alford get too many minutes at the point without stunning success.
I think the overall athleticism of this team is improved from last year, especially if my hopes for the post come to fruition. Alford is not the stubborn gruff Howland was, so I expect to see more zone on the defensive side of the ball. I love the athletic upside of freshman combo guard Zach Lavine, and I think this could be the year things finally click for Norman Powell. I don’t know exactly where to set my expectations for this year, and that may set up for a pleasant surprise as the season unfolds.
“Steve Alford fails in an epic fashion in the recruiting trail in his first year by striking out with all key point guard recruits in his first year at UCLA, possibly making him a damaged good for rest of his time in Westwood.” – Bruins Nation
Outlook: By no stretch do I dislike this team. I’m not sold on their top asset, defense, but I love Jordan Adams and while Kyle Anderson may be porous on the defensive end, he’s a matchup nightmare offensively and has no bones exploiting that: “Some games I’m going to be asked to score the ball more or go inside and rebound more. And I’m willing to.” As I’ve stated ad nauseum, I love seniors, and David and Travis will be hometown seniors. Their long and unique collegiate journey is coming to an end. How will they be remembered? They won’t soon be remembered as Bruin legends but they’re damn fine ball players. I imagine the Bruins to be one of six Pac-12 teams dancing in March.