Monday, March 23, 2015

UCLA Coach Steve Alford, Good or Lucky?








All UCLA fans aren't cheering about Steve Alford coaching the Bruins into the Sweet 16 for the second year in a row with a convincing 92-75 win over Alabama-Birmingham. The detractors are the legion of Alford haters. They're bitching and moaning because he now boasts two Sweet 16 appearances in two years at UCLA. Alford, whose job was in danger just weeks ago, now has two years of job security at least. That's the last thing Alford haters want to hear.

Until last week, this had been a horrible UCLA season, including a grim five-game losing streak, listless, undisciplined play by some of the starters, lazy second-half defense in way too many games and an embarrassing 7-point half against Kentucky on national TV. The general feeling was that the Bruins were a lousy team. There were rumors that some fat-cat boosters were pooling funds to pile up the $10 million needed to buy out Alford's contract.

Here's why the Alford haters, and there lots of them, hate him. They insist he's a crappy coach, that the Bruins are often out-coached and unprepared. They hate how he uses players, how he develops players--or doesn't develop players. They grouse about his misguided offensive sets and contend that he's a bad bench coach. They hate that he starts his son Bryce, barely average most of the season, at point guard. The haters weren't even impressed by the Bruins 28-9 record last season. Considering that great pool of talent, featuring a bunch of NBA draftees, that record, argue the haters, indicates gross underachieving.

When the Bruins were bounced out of the Pac12 tournament a few weeks ago, it seemed like their season was over since the experts didn't think they were good enough to make the NCAA tournament. The consensus was that Alford had better come up with at least a Sweet 16 team next season or he was through.

Alford haters were rejoicing. Then....

All of a sudden, against all odds, the Bruins get into the NCAA tournament--and as a surprisingly high No.11 seed at that. That was Break #1. Then they beat SMU via a controversial, rule-stretching basket-interference call on Bryce Alford's game-winning three-pointer. That was Break #2. So they advance instead of going home. Then there was Break #3. Their second-round opponent, 14th seeded Alabama-Birmingham, knocked off powerful Iowa State, which would have been a much tougher opponent for the Bruins. So all the Bruins had to do to make the Sweet 16 was beat UAB, a team they had easily whipped in preseason.

Presto, riding a string of breaks, the Bruins cruise into the Sweet 16. On the ropes just a few weeks ago, the same guy who was being called a bum and a loser, Alford is now being hailed as a great coach. Suddenly he's the next Wooden.

Alford haters are fuming about this turnaround, contending that Alford did no exceptional coaching these last two games, that the Bruins simply took advantage of a string of breaks and he was just along for the ride. The haters contend that, long term, the program still isn't in good hands, that Alford will continue with his subpar coaching and questionable decisions.

What would silence the haters and make them eat a heavy dose of crow? A win over Gonzaga, a team the Bruins lost to in preseason, that would elevate the Bruins to the Elite Eight. Beating a team with superior talent and exceptional coaching would show that Alford has something special.  

This Gonzaga game is the biggest of Alford's career. He needs a win or a very, very close loss. A Gonzaga rout would be fodder for the haters, who would go after him mercilessly, citing that berth in the Sweet 16 as a fluke. How will Alford respond? By this end of this game we'll have some idea what he's made of.