Saturday, March 30, 2013

Steve Alford, The New UCLA Coach? Oh No

Steve Alford, the new UCLA men's basketball coach? You gotta be kidding.

This is who they dumped Ben Howland for? UCLA fans had visions of great coaching hires, like Billy Donovan and Rick Patino, dancing in their heads. Then the school settles for Alford? What a come-down. These days, UCLA is no Kentucky or North Carolina or Kansas, but it deserves a higher-caliber coach than Alford.

And just last week Alford, who's been coaching at New Mexico the past six years, signed a letter of agreement for a 10-year extension. He was all smiles, saying he's looking forward to being a Lobo for the next ten years. But he didn't even last ten days. Real honorable. 

This is no big-time coach. He hails from the lower-tier Mountain West. His last game was last weekend, where his 29-6 team, picked by many for the Final Four, totally bombed. They didn't even make it out of the first round, stymied by modestly-talented Harvard, which won a NCAA tournament game for the first time in school history.

Harvard is small and slow and, in athletic ability, was totally outclassed by the Lobos' gazelles. But Alford was totally outcoached by Harvard's Tommy Amaker. Watching the game, it was clear New Mexico
didn't have a clue how to stop these smart but inferior athletes. That performance certainly didn't make you think the Bruins' hired the second coming of Coach K.

A new coach is supposed to be an upgrade but can you seriously argue that Alford is a step up? He has nothing close to an all-world resume, with tenures at Southwest Missouri State, Iowa and New Mexico. He took SMS on a nice run in the 1999 NCAAs, won two Big Ten titles at Iowa and led New Mexico to the NCAAs in three out of the last four seasons. A laudable resume yes, but good enough to earn him a head-coaching job at a top-tier program like UCLA's? Don't think so.

UCLA was looking for a younger coach who could relate easier to players and media than crotchety Howland, and someone who could recruit the Los Angeles area more efficiently. Yes, Alford is more affable and personable than Howland and brings a more entertaining brand of ball than Howland's defense-oriented, grind-it-out style. But even factoring in Howland's downturn in recent years, you can't argue that Alford is a superior coach. At age 48, Alford isn't even significantly younger than Howland, who is 55. And what about the notion that the new coach should have ties with the NBA, a lure for recruits? Look at all those players Alford has funneled into the NBA. Yeah, right.

Many thought Howland got a raw deal. Though he has been slipping in many areas, this season he did win the Pac12 title and was barely nosed out in the conference championship finals. He finished with a noteworthy 25-10 record and might have gone farther in the NCAAs if he hadn't lost his second-best player, Jordan Adams, just before the tournament..

Howland's replacement was not even UCLA's first choice. They went after some more skilled, higher profile coaches but were rebuffed. VCU's Shaka Smart didn't want the job. Neither did Butler's Brad Stevens. The real big guns, like Patino and Donovan, were never really in the picture.

The problem is that the UCLA job comes with plenty of baggage. The ghost of super-coach John Wooden looms after all these years. Bruin fans, still thinking it's the late 1960s, have ridiculously high expectations, so anything short of league titles and Sweet Sixteens is unacceptable. With high academic standards, UCLA coaches are limited to recruiting only high-level students, putting many four-star and five-star athletes out of reach. Nor is the salary eye-popping. It's a relatively measly $2.6 million a year. With all these headaches, this is not really an attractive job to coaches who are happy where they are.

Here's an unsettling thought. Maybe the Bruins hired Alford because they couldn't attract anybody better.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Bracketeering Tips From a Veteran Bookie

Filling out brackets for the NCAA men's basketball tournament is always tough. But this year it's even more of a crap-shoot.. Here are some bracketeering tips from a veteran bookie who goes by the name CarloAA:

First of all, why is this year so different?
"There's no great teams, none that you can count on to win most of the time. There's no really great players either. The best players of this year don't measure up to the best of recent years. So you can't use that as a measuring stick when you're making picks. It's really wide open. In any given year there are about five teams that could be number one. This year there's about twelve. If any of twelve teams finish on top I wouldn't be surprised. I can't recall a year like this one."

Possible winners?
" Louisville or Indiana are the two teams that my clients are backing. Louisville looks good because they finished strong, they come from a good conference and they beat some good teams. Indiana has a good shot at winning it all for the same reasons. They're a top Big Ten team and the Big Ten is a killer conference. Any of those top Big Ten teams could win it--Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin. I watched that conference closely. Those are tough teams that beat up on each other. In the tournament it's the battle-tested teams that do well."

How important is a team's conference?
"It's crucial. It's crucial how a conference is ranked. If you pick winners based on the quality of the conference in a given year, chances are you'll do OK. This year it's the Big Ten--the best by a mile--and the ACC."

The best overall strategy?
"Try to pick the Final Four. Do that by focusing on the top two or three seeds in each region and research them. Chances are the Final Four and the top team will come from that pool. What makes this year so tough is that these top teams are pretty even. Don't worry about the rest of the teams in the early rounds, the eight seeds, the twelve seeds--Podunk U from some conference you've never heard of. They don't matter. They're just happy to be there. The minor teams may win a game or two but that's all. The big points in the pools come when you pick teams that make the Final Four. This year there's about ten or twelve teams with a shot at making the Final Four. If  you pick two or three of the Final Four you're pretty good."

How about picking winners by who's the coach?
"You've got to pay attention to that to some degree when you're picking the Final Four and beyond. Like you give the big-name guys who've been there before an edge, guys like Coach K and Roy Williams. Chances are one of those guys will win it. But certain coaches you know will never win a title. Take that into consideration when you're picking in the upper rounds. Like Ben Howland, for instance. I picked UCLA to go to the Final Four twice about seven or eight years ago because he had some big-time players. But I knew he'd never win a title. He hasn't got the smarts to win it all. So I didn't pick UCLA to win it all, and I was right."

What's the silliest strategy?
"Trying to pick Cinderella teams.There will be upsets in the first round or two, before the teams that don't have a chance of winning it all get eliminated. But you pick an upset--so what? You get bragging rights for a minute. You win a battle but you don't win the war."

The most overrated team in the tournament?
"That's easy. Gonzaga. They"re no number one team. They shouldn't even be a Number One seed. They win all those games because they're in a weak conference. They play a few tough games but it's mostly cupcakes. Put them  in the Big Ten or the ACC and they'll finish in about the middle. I don't even think they'd win the Pac12 and that's a lousy conference."

Friday, March 15, 2013

UCLA Stuck In Howland Hell

Condolences, UCLA basketball fans. That's right, condolences.

You're off base if you think congratulations are in order because the Bruins beat Arizona State 80-75 to advance to the semis of the Pac12 tournament in Las Vegas, playing Arizona. Condolences are in order, Bruin fans, because Ben Howland is still your coach. The Bruins didn't win that game because of him, they won in spite of him. This is just another reason why AD Dan Guerrero should boot Ben out.

Legions of Bruin followers have been screaming for Howland's head for the last few years. There's no reason that the Bruins, who play most of their games in a generally crappy conference, should not only be the perennial conference leader but a fixture in the later rounds of the NCAA tournament. Yet, they've only made the NCAAs twice in the last four years. Unacceptable..The Bruins are now 24-8. Some of the wins were, unnecessarily, struggles. Some of the losses shouldn't have happened.  The problem? Ineffective coaching.

In terms of talent, the Bruins are usually loaded. This season, the only Pac12 team, talent-wise, in the Bruins' ballpark is Arizona, the team they play today, a team they've beaten twice. UCLA, though, should have trampled the rest of the league. However they didn't. They won the league crown, but it was nip and tuck all the way.

Two beatdowns this season, by Washington State and Cal, were particularly shocking. Though both were UCLA road games, neither team is as talented as UCLA. In fact, Washington State is downright awful.The only reason for such fiascos is that UCLA didn't mentally show up. That's on Howland. Teams, especially big-time teams with high-profile coaches, should show up every game. When they don't it's a coaching blunder.

Speaking of not showing up for games, where were the Bruin players' heads in the first half of the Arizona State game yesterday? Not in the game, that's for sure. This should have been an easy win for the Bruins. They were resting Wednesday while Arizona State was working hard, eking out an 89-88 OT win over Stanford. And don't forget, Arizona State is a No.9 seed. Even if Arizona State was fresh, this lower-tier unit should have been roadkill for UCLA. They're simply not in the Bruins' class.

But once again, Howland didn't have his team ready to play. They stumbled through the first half, looking half asleep. They were a step slow and often out of  position. For most of the game, they were outplayed, outsmarted and out-hustled. In the second half, against a fatigued team with inferior talent, the Bruins trailed, astonishingly, by 15 points and looked dead. Everyone's now saying the Bruins woke up in time. What really happened is that Arizona State, on the heels of that Wednesday OT game, finally wore down and the Bruins talent-edge took over. With Shabazz Muhammad, Travis Wear and point guard Larry Drew, who had a career game, leading the surge, the Bruins won by five. But it shouldn't have been that close..They were lucky to win..

Don't be surprised if the Bruins win the Pac12 tournament and even, with favorable match-ups, advance to the Sweet 16. It's certainly possible with their talent and with a senior point guard, Drew, playing at the top of his game. But that's hell for Howland haters. More wins means more Howland.  Here's a reality that Howland haters hate. Winning the Pac12 regular season crown guarantees him another year.

That's not good for UCLA. With Howland, the team is in limbo--never quite bad enough to get him fired but never good enough to get back to the Final Four. His success in the middle of last decade, leading the Bruins to three consecutive Final Fours, is actually a curse. Having been to the mountaintop with Howland, fans want to get back there again and again, or at least get close. Considering what their fans are accustomed to, reaching the Sweet 16 annually is a minimum requirement. In recent years, though, Howland has fallen short of those high standards. Since those glory years the program has been sliding downhill.. Howland has recruited high-quality players but hasn't developed any stars.

It hasn't helped that Howland has acquired a reputation for mishandling talent. So many top recruits either bail out or never reach their full potential under his guidance. On the plus side many of his players, like Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holliday, have become major NBA stars. On the negative side, though, all blossomed after they left UCLA.

With his dogged emphasis on structure and excessive attention to defense, Howland tends to stifle players' offensive development. The word is out that he's is inflexible, dictatorial and out of touch with youth. Most big-time recruits are looking to play fast-paced, racehorse basketball in college. UCLA, then, isn't the place for them. Howland has loosened up a bit in the last year or two but not enough to seriously alter the perception of UCLA as a place that covets stodgy, old-school basketball..

So what's UCLA's future like? It's not exactly rosy, with Drew graduating and Muhammad, the best Bruin player, headed to the NBA. Final Four next season? Chances of UCLA getting there are pretty remote. With Howland in charge, the Bruins will, once again, be average-to-good. But great? No way. So isn't it well past time for a coaching change and definitely time for a new direction?

But unfortunately, UCLA fans, you're stuck with him..

Again, my condolences.


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Warning To Gay Athletes--Stay In The Closet


To gay athletes contemplating coming out of the closet--don't do it. This is an impassioned  message from a gay, anxiety-ridden athlete who plays college football in the Big 10. His name is Bobby, the 20-year-old son of a friend of mine. Bobby said he'd talk about what it's like being a gay, closet-ridden player if I didn't use his name or the name of his school.

Living in the closet, Bobby insisted, is hell.
"It's a miserable, fake life. It's living two lives, hiding what you really are, living in fear of being found out. You spend so much time worrying and keeping your secret. It's wasted time, time you could be using doing something constructive. You're worrying about friendships.You know some people who like you because they think you're straight won't be your friend if they know you're gay. There's a bunch of guys I know who'd probably drift away from me if they knew I was gay. That really screws with your self esteem."

So if closet life is so hellish, why not come out? That can't be any worse.
"Oh yes it can," Bobby replied. "It's hell but it's a different kind of hell. The sports world is a macho world. The locker room is as macho as it gets. All sports are the same. I've played basketball and baseball. Locker rooms are the same. There's a lot of sex talk going on all the time. Making fun of gays is big sport in the locker room, calling them faggots and every other dirty name. If you talk to straight athletes about dealing with gay players, they'd say all the right things, the p.c. things. But they'd be lying. They don't respect gays. When it gets out that a player is gay, players from other teams would really abuse him. I couldn't stand that.  I don't want to be defined as a gay. That's only a small part of me. I'd rather stay in the closet."

He continued: "If I came out, other athletes would see me differently and in a negative way. They'd see me as the gay guy. They'd be making jokes behind my back. Some guys would be OK but most of them wouldn't be. The shower would be a big thing. I know they'd be uncomfortable around me in the shower. They wouldn't want to get undressed around me. They think I'd get aroused seeing them without clothes on. They couldn't stand that. I'm very careful about not getting aroused in the locker room. I'd never let that happen. But the guys would be worried about it, actually afraid of me. I couldn't stand being in that position."

Only a handful of people, including his father, know he's gay. Bobby said he figured out he was gay when he was about eleven, just after his mother died. "I know she didn't like gays," he said. "She made that clear. She would have hated having a gay son. I'm glad I never had to confront that situation when she was alive."

What about his love life?
"I don't have a boy friend," he replied. "I'm in a small-town atmosphere. I've really got to be careful. I'm afraid of being caught. There's another gay guy on the team. I see him once in a while. But we stay away from each other. Like me, he's terrified of being  caught.".

In high school Bobby had a horrifying experience related to his homosexuality, something that still haunts him. "I was in love with a guy on my high school team, a guy who was in the closet and scared of what he was," Bobby said. "His family didn't know and he was afraid they'd find out. One day he shot himself in the head."
Bobby has help hiding his homosexuality. "I have a girl friend I go out with, like we're lovers," he explained. "But she's like me. She's gay and she's an athlete. She's in the closet too. Her family doesn't know she's gay and she's afraid to tell them. She's not ready for the gay life. Her life is as screwed up as mine is. We're the perfect couple."

Though Bobby isn't a star, he's a very good player, good enough to be a pro prospect. That's another reason he wants to stay in the closet. "I have a chance to play pro ball and I don't want to louse that up," he said. "If I come out, from what I hear, that might cut down on my chances of being drafted. Some teams won't want to be bothered with an openly gay player. It would be a distraction."

Will some football player, either in college or the pros, come out of the closet soon? "It's sure to happen in the next few years," Bobby said. "He's got to be a star player, some one the team can't do without. He's got to be a strong person, somebody like Jackie Robinson. What Jackie went through was really tough, being the first black player in major league baseball. Breaking the gay barrier will be hard, but nowhere near as tough as breaking the color barrier. People were more scared of blacks back then, in the 1940s, than they are scared of gays now. That's probably the only good thing about being the first out of the closet."