UCLA: Utterly Confusing, Laughing at Assumptions

Steve Alford came to UCLA intent on reviving a program.

The somewhat ironic truth about Alford is that he’s been good at authoring revivals in Los Angeles. The problem? Those revivals haven’t lasted long enough, and they haven’t occurred under circumstances favorable enough to lead UCLA to the Promised Land.

Alford has been a magician in Pauley Pavilion. He pulled a rabbit out of the hat in each of the first two seasons on the job after leaving the New Mexico Lobos to take one of the Cadillac jobs in college basketball.

In 2014, UCLA ended the regular season by losing at Washington State. The Bruins were in line for a 6 or 7 seed. However, they got hot in the Pac-12 Tournament, beating Arizona to win the event and nab a 4 seed with a protected home-region pod on the opening weekend. UCLA reached the Sweet 16 before Florida sent the Bruins home.

Last year, the Bruins defied the odds to an even greater degree. They were selected as an at-large team when their resume didn’t merit inclusion in the NCAA tournament field. They beat SMU on a goaltended 3-point shot in the final 15 seconds, erasing a late seven-point deficit. They then faced a No. 14 seed, UAB, due to the Blazers’ upset of third-seeded Iowa State. The Bruins repeated as a Sweet 16 team in a most unlikely fashion. However, Gonzaga handled them easily in the regional semifinals, reminding UCLA how far it was from the Final Four.

Alford did create some magic the past two seasons. The issue with Alford is that a rabbit out of the hat is a pedestrian magic trick.

As a point of comparison, John Calipari — in 2011 and 2014 at Kentucky — pulled off feats worthy of Harry Houdini, David Copperfield, and David Blaine. Coach Cal escaped from tightly-sealed containers in elevated, remote or submerged conditions. Making the Final Four in those two seasons with teams seeded fourth (2011) and eighth (2014) represented the kinds of thrill rides a fan base will tolerate after a regular season filled with frustration.

Alford has done a great job of damage control by rescuing each of his first two seasons in L.A., but he hasn’t brought the Bruins to the level the locals expect. He hasn’t done in Southern California what Calipari did in 2011 and 2014 in Lexington.

A Sweet 16 in 2014 and 2015 represents a tolerable result, but as season three of the Alford era muddles along after a home-court loss to the Washington Huskies on Thursday night, it’s once again clear that UCLA basketball is not about to become the home-run hitter it was a decade ago.

It’s true that the Ben Howland era ran out of steam in Westwood, but Howland remains a man who brought UCLA three straight Final Four berths from 2006 through 2008. Alford has taken four different schools to the NCAAs, and multiple Sweet 16 appearances show that he knows his way around the block in the sport’s postseason to a certain extent. However, coaching hires at UCLA are made with an intent of reaching the mountaintop. Alford was supposed to be an upgrade over Howland.

As season three unfolds, it’s very hard to arrive at that conclusion.

What’s frustrating for any Bruin backer is that UCLA reveals its best self on a number of occasions; that best version of the Bruins simply doesn’t remain in place.

Which is the real UCLA — the team that won at Gonzaga, thumped Kentucky at home, and handled Arizona in Pauley Pavilion, or the team which has won only three road-neutral games (one versus UNLV) and got swept by Washington to fall to 3-5 in the Pac-12 entering a weekend game against Washington State?

Uneven effort has meant that the Bruins have had to flip the switch the past few years under Alford. To the coach’s credit, he’s been able to get his team to successfully do that in March. The problem is that this habit — which can no longer be seen as aberrational to the Alford years in Westwood — persists, unabated, well into a third season.

That’s a very alarming issue, not merely a peripheral one.

UCLA has a month and a half in which to take its very cluttered NCAA tournament resume and give it some definition (for the better). The Bruins have three high-end wins, but a large stack of losses. An honest analysis of UCLA’s resume would show that it’s better than what the team produced a year ago. The collection of good results won’t go away in the course of time. The problem is that if UCLA can’t begin to sweep Pac-12 homestands and split road trips with more consistency, the Bruins could finish 7-11 in the conference. If a road sweep of Arizona and a home win over Oregon are not part of that 7-11 record, this team will be in peril on Selection Sunday, even with those shiny poker chips against the Zags, Kentucky, and Arizona.

Utterly Confusing, Laughing at Assumptions about what it’s going to do?

Yes, that’s the UCLA we’ve come to know under Steve Alford.

The Bruins are a mess right now… which probably means they’ll figure things out over the next two weeks… and then stumble in the following 10 days… and then…

well, just fasten your seat belt and observe caution.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.