As UCLA’s skid reaches three games, the pressure on Bruins coach Steve Alford is heavier than ever
Alford's job status figures to be a major question of college hoops heading into 2019
CHICAGO -- When Steve Alford was hired at UCLA in 2013, he left a freshly signed 10-year contract at New Mexico and was brought aboard college hoops royalty to capture league titles, make Final Fours and, yes, absolutely, win a national championship.
Five years in, Alford's essentially not accomplished any of that, and now with the 80-66 loss to No. 15 Ohio State on Saturday afternoon at the CBS Sports Classic, it seems like the Bruins' program is in thicker mud than ever before under the 54-year-old coach.
UCLA was outworked Saturday by an overachieving Ohio State team that is now 11-1 and flirting with top-10 status in the polls. The Bruins have spilled completely, going from No. 17 in the third week of this season's AP Top 25 Poll to free-falling in every major ranking and metric the sport can offer.
The Bruins, picked No. 2 in the Pac-12 preseason poll, are now 7-5 overall and carry a 1-4 record against major-conference opponents. If the NCAA Tournament started tomorrow, UCLA wouldn't even qualify for the NIT. Its average margin of defeat against Michigan State, North Carolina, Cincinnati and OSU: 19.8 points. And that's not accounting for the deflating home loss to Belmont last week.
Alford's now lost three consecutive nonconference games for only the second time in the past 11 seasons. He tried to spin it afterward.
"This was better," he said of his team's play against Ohio State. "We had some strides here."
That's true; Cincinnati beat UCLA by 29 three days prior.
Look, here's a major problem that is heavily draped and not going away for UCLA. The Pac-12 is a disaster -- Alford basically said as much during his press conference.
"Our league has not performed well," Alford said. "That's obvious. As a whole, our league has not done well out of conference, so we've got a lot of work to do from that standpoint because that year we had a little bit more, I think opportunities, in league play to get big wins, and this year out of conference, our league hasn't performed well."
But, what should be Alford's biggest concern is that the Pac-12's flagship program is twisting and directionless.
Record-wise, the Bruins haven't been this bad through the first 12 games of a season since 2011-12, and it's worth noting that was the penultimate season for Ben Howland in Westwood.
Remember the Howland years? At this moment, right now, the peak of them sure seem like the very best UCLA's been since the dynastic run of the 1960s into the 1970s, which may as well be the Jurassic era in terms of how college athletics has changed, evolved, moved on from then.
But that 2011-12 season is worth bringing up. Because its context has found relevancy in the present-day. Howland's Bruins had made six of the previous seven NCAA Tournaments at that point, including of course the run from 2006-08 that featured back-to-back-to-back Final Four showings. But 2011-12 featured the Travis and David Wear, mercurial Josh Smith, sophomore Tyler Lamb and an up-and-coming freshman in Norman Powell.
It was a bad year.
The Bruins started 2-5, finished 19-14 and didn't even come close to making the NCAAs. That was that season when things turned -- aggressively -- on Howland to the point that there was no salvaging it. The next season, UCLA had an abundance of NBA talent (Kyle Anderson, Shabazz Muhammad, Jordan Adams and Powell, all of whom would go on to be drafted), won the Pac-12, earned a No. 6 seed ... and Howland was fired.
Things aren't comfortable for Alford right now, not at all. His job status, and the potential for UCLA to make a change at the top, will be one of the biggest lingering storylines into March.
"There's no issue with that with me," Alford said on Saturday when asked about his job security. "I just do my job as well as I possibly can and that's what I do every day. I'm a man of God, so I've got an audience of one, and I [show up] every day, work as hard as I can for my guys and at the end of the day, if I know that I've prepared and worked hard, then that's what matters to me."
Historically, there has been something about the UCLA job that has led to unsatisfactory divorces from its men's basketball coaches -- all its coaches -- since Wooden retired.
We're coming up on 45 years since he left.
And it's still never simple, easy or sufficient enough in the end. Ask Steve Lavin, Larry Brown, Gary Cunningham or Larry Farmer, all of whom are still alive, all of whom won at least 65 percent of their games at UCLA.
But it never ended well.
Alford's now 124-62 at UCLA, winning almost 67 percent of his games, with a couple of Sweet 16 appearances and NCAA tourney showings in four of his first five years. His team has been ranked in the AP Top 25 Poll every season he's been in Westwood, peaking with a No. 2 slot in 2016-17 -- the year Lonzo Ball brought the school back into full focus of national relevancy (with his father providing a lot of noise in the foreground).
And yet at that program, it's probably not going to be enough.
Alford's name, fair or not, has been rumored about within the industry in regard to hot-seat status for a while now. And Bruins fans have been increasingly vocal.
"You know, obviously with its fans, whether it be at UCLA or anywhere else, you always have those opinions," Alford said. "That's what you're dealt and I totally understand that and I get that. I'm a fan of basketball. I'm not happy. I'm not happy with our losses. I'm not happy with what happened Wednesday night and obviously not happy with getting a loss tonight, but we're working, we're grinding, trying to stay positive with a young group, an inexperienced group."
There have been circumstances affecting the start this season, no doubt, but 7-5 doesn't cover up for the season-ending injuries/issues that sidelined freshmen/former five-star prospects Tyger Campbell and Shareef O'Neal. Yeah UCLA has been operating with a shortened roster, and it's young, but Ohio State is relying on five freshmen and/or sophomores as well. And it's gone 11-1, including a win in the same building against the same team (Cincinnati) that made UCLA look low-major.
But UCLA isn't low-major, not in any way, certainly not in personnel. The Bruins don't lack for talent. The guys who are available and earning minutes will all eventually have their fair shots to make the NBA. Kris Wilkes (21) and Jaylen Hands (22) were top-25, five-star players in the class of 2017. Cody Riley was the No. 48 player in the same class, Jalen Hill right behind him at No. 65.
"I'm not happy with our losses. I'm not happy with what happened Wednesday night and obviously not happy with getting a loss tonight, but we're working, we're grinding, trying to stay positive with a young group, an inexperienced group."UCLA coach Steve Alford
You'd barely know it if you watched the Ohio State game or the 93-64 demolishing at Cincy.
Alford had the No. 24 class in 2015, then the No. 11 class in 2016, No. 15 in 2017 and No. 6 in 2018.
When you grow your recruiting to that extent, you can't start a season 7-5, even if some of those players are no longer on the roster, be it because of early NBA entry, transfer or injury. The natives have long been restless with Alford -- a certain, dejected contingent was never on board from day one -- and now we have the not-so-common lingering possibility that one of the six or seven true blueblood programs in college basketball will have a job vacancy in 2019.
"As coaches, we have to believe in them," Alford said. "They have to know that we believe in them, and there's a good trust right now in our locker room among players and coaches. We hang in there and we keep grinding and that's what we can control. The other stuff, we can't control that, anyway."
Can you fire a coach who makes the NCAA Tournament in four of his first six seasons, recruits to expectation level, has players go on to be lottery picks, makes Sweet 16s and annually gets his team ranked? At most places, the answer is hilariously "no." But UCLA isn't most places and hasn't operated the way other schools have for nearly half a century.
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