Looking Forward: UCLA, Steve Alford and college basketball’s most intriguing season

(AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what could be the most intriguing situation in college basketball next season, Steve Alford’s UCLA.

They flew back and forth, circling over its weakened target. Having spotted its sickly prey, they moved in to hasten its end.

It wasn’t vultures flying over Westwood, Calif. this past March, but it may as well have been.

A dismal season from Steve Alford’s UCLA basketball program ended not with a whimper, but with banners.

“UCLA DESERVES BETTER! FIRE ALFORD!”

“MARCH MADNESS IS NOT FIRING ALFORD”

Planes carried the directives over campus, and the message was impossible to mistake. It is Hollywood, after all. Subtlety will not suffice. Despite starting his tenure with back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances and top-four Pac-12 finishes, there’s a vocal faction of Bruin faithful already prepared to pull the plug on the Alford era after a 2015-16 campaign that saw the team drop its final five games of the year, lose three times to crosstown rival USC for the first time in almost three-quarters of a century, and finish 15-17.

If the legacy of three Final Fours and coming off a conference championship couldn’t save Ben Howland, a couple of second weekends in the NCAA tournament with his players won’t be enough for Alford to endear himself to those worshipping at the Altar of John Wooden. And you damn sure can’t get trounced by USC three times in the same season.

All that sets the stage for what figures to be one of the most intriguing seasons for any program across the country.

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Alford will enter the season under tremendous pressure, no doubt, and once coaches find themselves this far down the road with a fanbase, rarely can they divert back to good graces. But the Bruins have the roster this season to meet the exacting standards of a program that has set the bar for the sport. Tony Parker exhausted his eligibility, but UCLA returns four others who averaged in double figures.

Of course, one of those is the coach’s son, Bryce Alford, and his usage has always rankled UCLA supporters. His effective shooting percentage was 47.4 last year, and that was saved by a 36.7 percent mark from 3-point range. His shooting inside the arc, 40.2 percent, was abysmal. He’s a volume shooter in an era where that’s a scarlet letter.

Still, Alford is a useful player, and Isaac Hamilton, Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday form a solid core of returners to bounce back from last season’s debacle. They, though, will not be the key to Steve Alford’s salvation. That would be the newcomers, Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf.

The pair are consensus top-20 recruits in the 2016 class, and create the inside-out recruiting class coaches dream about. Ball, the 6-foot-5 point guard, and Leaf, the 6-foot-10 forward, are potential program-changers, especially in an era where the impact of high-level freshmen is no longer in doubt. Kentucky and Duke have shown that a team led by first-year players can cut down nets.

Leaf will be integral to the Bruins’ season, but it very likely will be Ball on which the season will turn. He led his high school to a 35-0 record, a California state title and USA TODAY’s No. 1 national rankings during his senior season. Playing alongside his two younger brothers, both of whom are UCLA commits, Ball averaged a triple-double of 23.6 points, 11.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists during his senior season. The McDonald’s All-American can do it all, but most importantly for a highly-touted freshman joining a group of veterans, he shares the ball. Ball is often hailed as a virtuoso passer, and nothing ingratiates a player to new teammates like putting them in a position to score.

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On paper, it almost makes perfect sense. An accomplished, if flawed, group adds a couple of studs, and a program returns to glory. The path isn’t without pratfalls, though. Alford has to get the group to coalesce, which will likely mean pulling back on his son’s prominence in the offense. As talented as Ball and Leaf are, freshmen don’t always acclimate themselves immediately, and if things get sideways early for the Bruins, the banners will be back in full force.

The fervency — or as some would argue, the delusion — of UCLA fans is what is really at play here. They are what puts the pressure on Bruins coaches. UCLA finished sixth in the Pac 12 in attendance last season, averaging 8,073 in Pauley Pavilion each night, as Sean Miller so kindly pointed out last season. Bruins fans hold their program to as high a standard as any program in the country, and maybe as much as any group, they are loud about it. No other program has a beloved alum with a platform and without a filter like UCLA has with Bill Walton calling games. Walton, as only he can, taking verbose shots at the program on air contributed to Howland’s demise. If he turns on Alford, it will intensify the displeasure that’s already present.

The astonishing $10-million buyout negotiated into Alford’s contract in 2013 will fall to $5.2 million next spring after he returned the one-year extension he signed in 2014. A coach giving back an extension is as good a sign as any that something is amiss, by the way.

A manageable buyout, a very talented but unproven roster, big expectations and a vocal, unsettled fanbase make UCLA basketball a must-watch this winter, whether it’s because it’s beautiful basketball or a wreck you can’t look away from.