The New Wizards of Westwood
In the spring of 2016, the only games that UCLA men’s basketball head coach Steve Alford got to watch came from the comfort of his couch.
Prior to that, since 2008, Alford’s teams had made it to the NCAA tournament in five of the prior eight seasons, and was at least invited to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) in those other three years. He led the usually-overlooked New Mexico Lobos to two appearances in the Round of 32 (in 2010 and 2013), and a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2012.
When UCLA lured him to Westwood with a seven-year, $18.2-million contract in 2013, Alford repaid them with a 28–9 record, Pac-12 championship, and Sweet Sixteen appearance in his first season. He then followed that up with another Sweet 16 appearance in 2015, when the 11th-seeded Bruins upset the 6th-seeded SMU in the opening round, and then defeated UAB in the Round of 32.
But 2015 marked a big step back for Alford and the Bruins. UCLA finished with a 15–17 record, marking only the second time the Bruins had a losing record in the past decade, and their 10th place finish in the Pac-12 was their worst rank in multiple decades. In Westwood, that’s the type of stuff that can take any coach right from the penthouse to the outhouse. The school, the alumni, and the fans of UCLA simply won’t stand for such infamy. After all, Alford’s predecessor, Ben Howland, was fired as head coach because he hadn’t led the Bruins past the second round of the tournament in his last five years as coach, yet he had still led the Bruins to the best record in the Pac-12 the season immediately preceding his dismissal.
For Alford, it was the first time he had finished a season with more losses than wins since 1999. He’s simply not accustomed to this type of losing. In his 25 years as a coach, he’s only had three losing seasons (including 2015). He took tiny Southwest Missouri State, the University of Iowa, and the University of New Mexico to the NCAA Tournament; none of those schools would be classified as basketball powerhouses. During his playing days, Alford played under legendary head coach Bob Knight at the University of Indiana, and became the university’s all-time leading scorer, as well as the only player to date to be named team MVP four times. He was a member of the 1966–1987 Hoosiers championship team that defeated Syracuse University. In other words: losing simply didn’t exist in Alford’s universe. So, this type of setback, at one of the most prestigious — and pressure-filled — universities, wasn’t acceptable
Thankfully, Alford and the Bruins got some serious reinforcement over the off-season, in the form of two of the top 20 basketball recruits in the nation — both of whom happen to be from southern California. Point guard Lonzo Ball from Chino Hills was ranked by many analysts as the top point guard recruit in the nation, and a top three recruit overall. TJ Leaf, a power forward from El Cajon, was ranked by many services as one of the top 15 prospects in the nation as well. The coaches, the school, and the fans undoubtedly saw both players as the building blocks needed to get the program back to its winning ways.
Ball is the type of point guard prospects that modern day basketball coaches — and NBA scouts — absolutely fawn over. He’s a tall (6'5) point guard that has the height and the length to whip passes all over the court. He’s arguably the most gifted passer of any prospect in the country, showing extraordinary vision, timing, and accuracy when facilitating all different parts of the offense. And if an offense decides they want to play off Ball, he’s shown an effective midrange jumper that stretches as far as 28 feet.
Similarly, Leaf’s skill-set not only translates beautifully into the modern style of basketball, but also makes him a perfect fit to play alongside Ball. The highly athletic, sweet-shooting six-foot-ten forward is the prototype “stretch four” that NBA teams so desperately covet these days. He’s got a polished face-up game where he can use his jab step to create separation from defenders. He can run the fast break and finish with an electrifying dunk if needed, or simply stop on a dime, rise up, and nail a jump shot from anywhere.
Two months through the 2016–2017 season, Ball and Leaf are returning dividends that would make any Bruins supporter proud. Just about midway through January, the Bruins are ranked among the top five teams in the nation, and mentioned among the three best teams in the nation among many analysts’ current power rankings. They’re one of only six teams in the nation to lose one or less games so far. Earlier this year, UCLA defeated then #1-ranked Kentucky, going into Rupp Arena and winning their first-ever game there; prior to that game, Kentucky had won 42 straight home games.
Ball might be the best player so far, among all the incredible incredibly talented freshmen entering the college ranks this year. He’s currently second in the nation in assists, and averaging over 14 points, eight assists, and five rebounds per game. Even with those stats, the most impressive numbers might be his 3.46-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio (incredible efficiency for a first year player), and his 43% three-point conversions. Leaf, along with teammates Isaac Hamilton, Aaron Holiday, and Bryce Alford, have the confidence to do whatever they can to get open, knowing that Ball will be able to deliver the ball to them at almost impossible angles. Unsurprisingly, Leaf has particularly benefited from Ball’s ability to set him up at the perfect moment, converting on a startling 70%+ of his two-point shots. He currently leads the Bruins, scoring over 17 points per game, and pulling down a team-high 9.1 rebounds per game.
Many thought that Ball’s arrival could potentially create chemistry issues in the backcourt where Alford has been “the guy” for the past few years, but the fast-moving, unselfish style of play that Ball has brought to the team has rubbed off on all his teammates — including the seniors.
While the Bruins might be looking up at other teams in the Pac-12 standings, most people view them as, far and away, the best team in the conference. If they keep up this level of play through the early spring, it wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprising to see Steve Alford’s Bruins go from 10th in the conference, to #1.