Steve Alford has officially begun his tenure as head coach of the UCLA basketball team, picking up a trio of wins to tip off his inaugural season.
While the games, played against far inferior opponents, mean little, they are nevertheless a reassuring start to the official beginning of the Alford era.
In addition, we’ve seen how seemingly meaningless games can take on plenty of meaning when they’re botched (e.g., vs. Cal Poly 2012; vs. LMU, Middle Tennessee 2011).
As the Bruins continue their non-competitive non-conference schedule through November (Morehead State, Chattanooga, Nevada, Northwestern), there’s an air of uncertainty that encircles Alford’s first Bruins team.
Are they talented enough? Can they play effective defense? Are they deep enough? Can the freshmen have an impact?
Above all: Can Alford sculpt this team into a national contender?
Coach Alford begins his first season in Westwood under very different circumstances than he did six years ago when he first came out west to New Mexico.
Prior to Alford’s stint in Albuquerque, the Lobos finished an all-time worst eighth in the Mountain West, tallying their most conference losses in program history with a pitiful 4-12 record.
Alford immediately yanked the program from its sharp plunge by leading New Mexico to an 11-5 (3rd) record in the Mountain West and a 24-9 record overall in his initial season. The Lobos also made the NIT after a two-year drought from tournament play.
With the legacy of John Wooden already floating angelically over Pauley Pavilion, Alford has entered an entirely different universe by assuming the head coaching position at UCLA, a realm in which past success casts a pitch-black shadow.
While the firing of Alford’s predecessor, Ben Howland, seemed imminent after his No. 1 recruiting class failed to get past the Round of 64 in the almighty NCAA Tournament, Howland had previously led the Bruins to three straight Final Fours.
Not to mention the fact that UCLA won the Pac-12 regular-season title outright before Howland was sent packing after a 10-year stay in Westwood.
Yet, despite the assumed high expectations of the UCLA head coaching position, Alford can buy himself some time to develop the program without falling victim to the premature axe if he convincingly proves that he has control over the program.
In order to achieve this simple but vital assurance, he’ll have to make the best out the talent he has on this team.
Although there isn’t too much hype surrounding UCLA this season, three out of four members of UCLA’s stellar 2012 recruiting class remain (Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson, Tony Parker), and freshman guard Zach LaVine figures to be a valuable addition to the team this season.
Alford will have to win the games that UCLA is favored to win with this group of players and at least make a contest out of the games they are predicted to be overmatched in, such as their non-conference matchup against ACC powerhouse Duke and Pac-12 showdowns against top-ranked Arizona.
Above all, Alford needs to change the mentality of his players in order to have an immediate impact as the Bruins’ head coach.
In UCLA’s last few seasons under Ben Howland, the Bruins became very self-oriented and didn’t appear to have the best interest of the team in mind.
This was vividly displayed when the Bruins beat Washington last season with Larry Drew II’s buzzer-beater and Shabazz Muhammad and Travis Wear didn’t show the slightest interest in joining the ensuing celebration.
UCLA football coach Jim Mora has been hailed as a savior not only because the Bruins are winning but because he completely altered the mentality of the team.
His players exert full effort every single down, and that’s what got Westwood excited for the future after his first season as head coach despite an anticlimactic conclusion to the season with a pair of losses in postseason play.
Coach Alford can bring the same excitement back to the UCLA basketball program if he can similarly bring the passion and intensity back to a program with a storied past that has long dimmed the accomplishments of its inhabitants.
He doesn’t have to achieve greatness in his first season at UCLA; he just has to demonstrate that he has the power to attain it.