UCLA Basketball: Projecting the 5 Biggest Changes Steve Alford Will Make
Steve Alford has been hired as UCLA's 13th head basketball coach.
With Alford, they say, things will be different. Things will go back to the way they were.
The way they were under John Wooden, you ask?
No, things will never be that way again. Not for UCLA, not for anybody.
Well, the way they were under Ben Howland, then?
Maybe. Which Ben Howland—the Howland of the first or the last five years?
The first, hopes UCLA's faithful.
Alford is different than Howland, a different man and a different coach. How different is yet to be seen. What follows are five things that Alford will change—or won't change—as he takes control of UCLA's basketball fate.
Alford Is Hunting Big Sharks From the Outset
Steve Alford and his crew are immediately going to chum, with true blue and gold, the waters where the big 5-star recruits swim. Alford also wants to entice a killer or two to the palatial holding tank in Westwood, CA known as New Pauley Pavilion.
"We're excited about that," Alford told ESPN's Colin Cowherd on a recent radio broadcast. "And I think you have to do it. Again, I think it's the culture; 25 years ago there was no one-and-done.
"UCLA is a place where you're looking at 11 national championships, so you've gotta go after the elite. I don't think we're going to have an entire team of that, but I do think you have to recruit very heavily even if somebody is potentially a one-and-done type of player. It's hard to pass on those guys because you're going to be playing against them."
Former UCLA coach Ben Howland worked his way over five seasons from the fertile, pacific holes he harvested so well, toward those treacherous but potentially lucrative shark waters. In the interim he built his best teams primarily with less heralded, hungrier players from the heart of Southern California.
But for Howland, the allure of hauling in prize recruiting catches to chase after championship trophies overmastered him, and the difficulties he had satisfying them—losing 11 players to transfer or dismissal over his last five seasons—is truly what cost his commission as captain of UCLA's ship.
Get Back to the L.A. Recruiting Scene
There were those who wanted Ben Howland to stay, and there were those who yipped like coyotes at the moon that he had to go. There was a last group occupying the middle who believed Coach Howland had what it took, but knew without doubt why he might be fired.
Howland had lost his touch—either in the short term or forever, we'll never know—with Southern California. If there was one thing above all others the head coach at UCLA could not do (after not winning) it would be that.
George Dohrmann at Sports Illustrated wrote a concise exposition of the basic conflict. An always unstated number of AAU coaches—the self-appointed Cardinal Richelieu's guiding the destinies of basketball's young princes—turned against Coach Howland. That meant the pipelines carrying the players to Westwood were shut off.
These coaches and advisors turned on Howland because he ran a system that did not showcase their players, and because in certain instances he had betrayed their trust. The story Dohrmann tells of the forsaking of Kendall Williams, an excellent young player who bled blue-and-gold before having his scholarship pulled at the last minute by Howland, is painful to read.
There were other Los Angeles kids who left. Spencer Dinwiddie, from Taft High School in Woodland Hills, and Allen Crabbe, from Los Angeles Price High, never really got a look from UCLA. Dinwiddie was Pac-12 All Conference last year and led the rival Colorado in scoring. Crabbe, who played at Berkeley (a bigger rival) was the Pac-12 Player of the Year.
The most startling quote in Dohrmann's piece comes from a coach who did not have the mettle to attach his name. It is an astonishing revelation nonetheless.
"A lot of coaches on the West Coast will be sad to see Ben go," said the unnamed coach. "He leveled the [recruiting playing field]."
Imagine that. It had gotten so bad for a coach at UCLA that other coaches in the league felt the Los Angeles area was wide open to being raided.
It was untenable, and the list of players Coach Howland recruited out of Los Angeles before the schism reveals why. Basketball people may recognize a few of the names: Lorenzo Mata, Josh Shipp, Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday. This is the core (outside of Holiday) of the UCLA teams that played in more Final Fours than it missed during their careers.
So Steve Alford will return UCLA to the soil, so to speak, harrowing again once fertile ground, planting seeds, growing relationships and reaping what always have been fertile harvests.
If Alford does succeed in carting the healthy Southland produce back to the Westwood market, then UCLA will become reconnected to its ancestral roots, and playing again with a product that is—at its worst—on par with the finest America has to offer.
They Say Players Will Like Him More
It is a message that always seems to be traveling through the jet stream. To hear it, all a person has to do is raise an antenna to find the frequency it's sounding over: Steve Alford is a players coach, while Ben Howland was not loved by his players.
It is hard to know how true this is. There are athletic department donors who will tell you privately that the nature of coach Howland's personality drove people away from him. Watching 11 players Howland recruited to UCLA quit, transfer or get kicked off of the team over the last five years will likely be pointed to as smoking gun evidence.
That Coach Alford used former UCLA recruits or players—Drew Gordon and Kendall Williams, for example—to win the last two Mountain West Conference regular-season and tournament championships might be offered as evidence corroborating the case for his success.
George Dohrmann said in his Sports Illustrated piece, "Howland lacked the personality and people skills to manage high maintenance players."
Peter Yoon at ESPN said in his piece that Alford is "known as a player's coach."
So, there you have it—a coach the players were driven from has left, and one they will like has come to replace him.
If that means Alford's rosters will be strong, deep and steady, as Howland's once were, what reason is there to believe UCLA will not rise quickly back into contention on the national scene?
The Offense Will Look Different
One of the most curious things about Steve Alford being hired at UCLA is that in both principle and essential product, his teams have been very much like Ben Howland's.
In firing Howland, Athletic Director Dan Guerrero said UCLA wanted a coach that was going to push game tempo and bring a lot of excitement into the gym.
"We pushed the ball a lot more and scored at a much higher rate, and I know that our fans liked that," said Guerrero in an article published by the Associated Press. "[We want a coach] who can play a fun brand of basketball, but also a quality brand of basketball. We don't want to bring in a coach that is going to average 50 points a game."
Alford runs a motion offense. It's a venerable system and it's been employed by many great championship teams. Bob Knight won three titles with it at Indiana, where Alford was a star player for the '87 team.
Mike Krzyzewski has run it to 12 Final Fours and four titles at Duke.
The motion is a naturally recyclable series of off-the-ball screens, back screens and cuts, principled floor spacing, minimal one-on-one dribbling, orchestrated passing and rhythmic shooting to get points. There is freedom to get out and run if it's available in transition, but it is not, by any standard, an "uptempo" offense.
The motion system will look different than coach Howland's various offensive sets, but it will not by design produce any greater volume of possessions. Over the last five seasons, Howland's teams at UCLA scored 71.5 points per game, on average. During the same stretch in the Mountain West, Alford's teams at New Mexico scored 72.58.
Jeff Eisenberg over at Yahoo Sports wrote a blurb on Alford's scoring side for The Dagger blog.
Despite UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero's thinly veiled attempt to sell Alford as an "up-tempo" coach in the press release the school issued, Alford's style of play at New Mexico actually wasn't too different from Howland's during most of his time in Westwood. New Mexico ranked 239th in the nation this season in possessions per 40 minutes. Alford traditionally has been a defensive-oriented coach who encourages his teams to run when the opportunity is there but certainly doesn't push tempo.
[Alford is] a defensive-minded coach who isn’t known for lighting up scoreboards. New Mexico was No. 172 in the nation in scoring this season with 67.4 points per game, so if it’s an entertaining, wide-open style you’re looking for, Alford won’t be bringing it.
Defensive Mindset Will Remain Same
Defense wins championships. It's a cliche that is so true and yet so dried up and crusty that in using it you'll grind any good sports conversation to a halt and be flogged with the entrails.
That is what Ben Howland brought to UCLA when he came to retrofit a steel hull onto a fast but fragile teak-wood clipper ship, and it's what Steve Alford will bring to pair with his methodical and principled half-court offense.
Why does this sound so familiar?
Our best scientists have not been able to discover why an uptempo, running offense cannot be paired with a hard, aggressive, effective defense. But with Andy Enfield being given the opportunity of a lifetime across town at USC, the battle between two wildly contrasting styles is going to be brought to fruition.
If Enfield can instill a strong defensive system in South Central Los Angeles to pair with his "Showtime" (run lanes and dunk) offense, UCLA is going to have a chore to keep up with their rival's pace.
UCLA's great guard Toby Bailey was at Coach Alford's press conference, and was quoted at some length by Beth Harris of the Associated Press. Bailey, who became a college basketball legend as a true freshman with a titan's performance in the 1995 championship game, was both interesting and insightful (h/t Yahoo Sports):
''He's really disciplined, you can tell that by his New Mexico team,'' said Bailey. ''His team really played defense, which is big if you're going to compete for a national championship.''
At the same time though, Bailey cautioned that fans in Los Angeles want to watch uptempo teams, citing the current Los Angeles Clippers and the old ''Showtime'' Lakers.
''The John Wooden teams pressed and were very successful. L.A. has so much going on and it has such a small attention span. If you don't run that style, you really have to start producing.''