Steve Alford is out as UCLA’s head coach

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The news that we were all waiting for hit right around 2 a.m. on the east coast on Monday morning: Steve Alford is now the former head coach of the UCLA basketball program.

Rumors had been swirling all weekend that UCLA would buyout the rest of Alford’s contract after a 15 point home loss to Liberty, the fifth consecutive defeat suffered by the Bruins, dropped the team to 7-6 on the season. Seth Davis of The Athletic was the first to report the UCLA brass had made the decision to move on.

This was Alford’s sixth season with the program. He had been to four of the previous five NCAA tournaments, finishing his tenure with a 124-63 record overall and a 55-35 mark in league play. He reached the Sweet 16 three time, most recently in 2017, when Lonzo Ball turned the Bruins into the most high-powered offense in the sport.

The timing of the decision is unfortunate, but it makes plenty of sense. The Bruins have more talent than anyone else in the Pac-12, but this team has quit on Alford. As one source close to the program phrased it, “they hate him.” Coaching is hard enough when you have a roster full of players that want to play for you. It’s impossible to win when those players have tuned you out, and that’s exactly what happened to UCLA and Alford. If UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero can find an interim that the guys will play hard for, there is no reason this team cannot win the Pac-12. Remember, the “best” team in the conference, Arizona State, just lost at home to Princeton.

The problem there is that there is no guarantee that will happened. There is talent on the UCLA roster — they have three five-star prospects, seven players that were top 100 recruits and four or five players, if not more, that will play in the NBA at some point — but it is a roster that is fatally flawed. There is no point guard on this roster. There are no shot creators. Sophomore point guard Jaylen Hands is supposed to be the leader, but he’s a selfish, shoot-first lead guard that isn’t quite as good as he thinks he is and defends with the same intensity as a rocking chair. Kris Wilkes is a scorer on the wing, but he’s out to prove that he can play in the NBA more than he is interested in making UCLA a winner. Moses Brown is a 7-foot-1 center that has looked like Kareem in stretches and like a totem pole in others.

Can a roster full of players that have to be taught to play hard, play unselfishly and care about defense win with anyone as their coach?

As of now, it is unclear who will serve as the interim head coach for the rest of the season. If the program is looking to get someone that the players like, the answer is associate head coach Duane Broussard. If they are looking for a program legend to appease a fan base for three months while they figure out what the next step is, the answer is Tyus Edney. If they simply want someone they can cut ties with come March, it’s Murry Bartow.

(UPDATE: UCLA tabbed Bartow as the interim. Take that as you will.)

Either way, I don’t see this thing getting turned around.

Which brings us to the next question: Who does UCLA hire? Better yet, who can UCLA hire?

The question of whether or not the Bruins are still a member of college basketball’s royalty is going to be something that is discussed ad nauseum over the course of the next four months, and the truth is this: UCLA is still one of the most storied programs in sports. Period. But it’s also true the program has been unable to dig itself out of a handful of bad coaching hires. The Bruins have won just a single title since 1975. That was in 1995. That title, and Ben Howland’s three straight trips to the Final Four from 2006-2008, are the only times that UCLA has played on the final weekend of the college basketball season since 1980.

Think about that.

UCLA has been to four Final Four in the last 38 years. North Carolina has been to 13. Duke has been to 12. Kentucky and Kansas have been to nine. UConn has won four titles in that time frame. Villanova has won three.

Part of the problem is that UCLA has whiffed on a couple hires since Wooden left — Steve Lavin was not exactly John Wooden. Part of the issue is that the AAU programs in the area have gained major influence over the program in recent years — Ben Howland’s firing had a lot to do with the fact that he had a falling out with the coaches in the area, although that was more or less a self-inflicted wound.

But the biggest issue is that the Bruins has not invested in the sport like the programs they pretend to compete with. Steve Alford made $2.6 million annually, which is a lot of money. It’s also less than what Avery Johnson is making at Alabama, Cuonzo Martin is making at Missouri, Will Wade is making at LSU and Larry Krystkowiak is making at Utah. It’s a third of the salary that Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari get paid. It’s half of what Bill Self is paid. Tom Izzo and Sean Miller are making more than $4 million. All of that is before you factor in the cost of living in Westwood vs. the random college towns where the rest of those coaches reside.

UCLA has finally invested in a Pauley Pavilion upgrade and added a practice facility, which matters, but they still don’t charter flights. To put that into perspective, Dayton charters flights. Wichita State charters flights. If you want to be considered an elite program, you cannot have your seven-footers sitting in airports for three hours after a flight delay only to spend a four hours sitting coach on a cross-country Southwest flight.

It’s laughable, quite frankly.

There are going to be plenty of big names that get linked to this opening. Here are the six that are most likely to seriously consider the job:

  • Fred Hoiberg will be linked to the job because he was fired by Chicago and runs the kind of uptempo style that LA fans want out of their hoops. His agent, Debbie Spander, also works for Wasserman, who the UCLA football center is named after.
  • Rick Pitino would be an obvious name for UCLA to target, as he is one of the best basketball coaches on the planet. The question is whether or not the program would be willing to hire someone with his reputation.
  • Jamie Dixon is a native of Southern California that has turned TCU from the laughing stock of the Big 12 in to a program that won the NIT in 2017, reached the NCAA tournament in 2018 and has started out this season 11-1.
  • Eric Musselman has turned Nevada into a superpower in the Mountain West and has NBA pedigree, but like Hoiberg, he relies heavily on the transfer market to succeed. There are also concerns about the way that he treats people within his program.
  • Earl Watson is a UCLA alum and a former NBA point guard and head coach that has strong ties to Under Armour, the apparel company UCLA signed a $280 million sponsorship deal with.
  • Mike Brey is a name that has popped up because of the success that he has had at Notre Dame. The fit makes a lot of sense: UCLA, like Notre Dame, is a high-academic school that is affiliated with Under Armour.

The program should be flush with cash thanks to that Under Armour deal. They just committed $25 million to Chip Kelly to coach the football program.

And if they are willing to spend the money, there’s no reason that the Bruins can’t hire the guy they want and make it back amongst the elite in college hoops.

But you can’t expect to win if you don’t want to invest in the program.

No. 1 South Carolina wins 28th straight 87-69 over ‘Cats

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Dawn Staley’s pleased South Carolina had made its once-lopsided series with UConn more competitive the past few years.

She hopes her top-ranked team can accomplish another milestone when the teams meet for a top-five showdown on Sunday.

“It still stands true that we haven’t won up there,” Staley said.

Aliyah Boston had 14 points and 14 rebounds as South Carolina prepared for the top-five showdown with an 87-69 victory over Kentucky on Thursday night.

The Gamecocks (10-0 Southeastern Conference) improved to 22-0 and won their 28th straight, a run that included a 64-49 victory over the Huskies in Minneapolis last April to win the national championship.

Staley had lost her first seven games as South Carolina coach against UConn. The Gamecocks have won three of the past four matchups since.

“This particular class committed to each other,” Staley said. “When you have that type of commitment and you just want to win, you find yourself winning some games that you haven’t won before.”

Against Kentucky, reigning AP player of the year Boston extended her school mark with her 75th career double-double and moved within 11 of the SEC record of 86 games with a double-double held by LSU great Sylvia Fowles.

Things weren’t perfect for South Carolina, which fell behind early, then had its 15-point halftime lead cut to 54-48 midway through the third quarter.

Still, its dominant inside game – South Carolina outscored the Wildcats 62-14 in the paint – was more than enough to shut down Kentucky (10-12, 2-8), the last team to defeat the defending national champions at the SEC Tournament last March.

The Wildcats went on top 16-15 after a pair of baskets by Adebola Adeyeye.

That’s when South Carolina, fueled by its bench, took control with a 17-2 run. Ashlyn Watkins had three inside shots and Kamilla Cardoso scored four points during the surge.

The Wildcats used a 13-4 burst to start the third quarter to give South Carolina a few uncomfortable moments. But the Gamecocks got going once more with an 11-0 run to extend their margin.

Cardoso, the 6-foot-7 reserve, had 14 points and five of South Carolina’s 14 blocks. Defensive ace Brea Beal had 10 including both of the Gamecocks’ 3-pointers.

Beal thought the team held together well to blunt Kentucky’s runs and regain control. “I think it’s our mental aspect of the game and us believing in each other,” she said.

Robyn Benton had 24 points to lead Kentucky, which has lost three of its past four games.

Wildcats coach Kyra Elzy said South Carolina is difficult to match up with because of its deep bench. “They have depth after depth after depth,” she said. “They keep coming.”

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats are the not the same team that featured two-time SEC player of the year Rhyne Howard the past few seasons. They have 10 newcomers – and six freshmen – who are still learning how to play against the SEC’s top teams like South Carolina.

South Carolina: Forgive the Gamecocks if their focus wasn’t fully on this one at first with a big week ahead. In an eight-game span, South Carolina will face No. 5 UConn and No. 3 LSU, a pair of high-profile games could expose any flaw – or show how powerful the Gamecocks are in chasing a second straight NCAA crown.

UCONN KARMA

South Carolina has opened 22-0 twice under coach Dawn Staley, in 2014-15 and the following year. Both runs ended against UConn. Next up for Gamecocks are the Huskies, although South Carolina has won three of the past four games over UConn including last April’s 64-49 victory to win the NCAA Tournament title.

UP NEXT

Kentucky returns home to face Alabama on Feb. 9.

South Carolina heads to No. 5 UConn on Sunday.

Miles, Citron lead No. 9 Irish past Boston College 72-59

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BOSTON — Olivia Miles and Sonia Citron had already scored 10 straight points to put away Boston College when they turned their attention to other things.

“I told Sonia I needed two more assists for the double-double. And she was like, `All right, I’ve got you,”‘ Miles said after helping No. 9 Notre Dame beat BC 72-59 on Thursday night.

“That’s just kind of our communication on the court,” said Miles, who found Citron for baskets on the next two Irish possessions to complete a 14-0 run – with all 14 points from Miles and Citron. “We just really play off each other really well.

Miles scored 22 points with 10 assists and eight rebounds, and Citron scored 23 for the Irish (18-2, 9-1 Atlantic Coast Conference).

Maria Gakdeng scored 16 points, T’Yana Todd had 13 and Andrea Daly scored 10 with eight rebounds for BC (14-11, 4-8). The Irish beat BC at home 85-48 on New Year’s Day but hadn’t won in Chestnut Hill since 2019.

“This is such a tough place to play,” said Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey, whose team faces No. 16 Duke next. “We’ll celebrate it until about 12:30, and then we’ve got film. Tomorrow we start focusing on Duke.”

BC came within five points, 55-50, before the Irish ran off 14 points in a row – nine by Citron, and five by Miles. That put an end to what had been a back-and-forth game in which the Irish opened big leads and then frittered them away.

“I always feel like we’re close,” BC coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee said. “They’re young; I think consistency comes with experience.

“I think it’s a big improvement from the first time we played Notre Dame,” she said. “I still want to see more, and I want to see us grow up as fast as humanly possible because I think we do have a dangerous team when we going well.”

Notre Dame led by 11 in the first quarter and held a 38-30 lead with two minutes gone in the third. BC scored 13 of the next 18 points, capitalizing on back-to-back Irish turnovers to tie it 43-all with three minutes left in the quarter.

But Natalija Marshall put back the rebound of her own miss, Miles drove to the basket, Maddy Westbeld added a pair of baskets and then Miles stole the ball and found Citron on the fast break to make it 53-43.

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame bounced back from their first league loss of the season, a 69-65 defeat at North Carolina State on Sunday. Now they face No. 16 Duke.

The Eagles, who beat Pittsburgh on Sunday to snap a five-game losing streak, were looking for their second victory over a Top 25 team this season, having also beaten then-No. 10 N.C. State on Jan. 5.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: Hosts No. 16 Duke on Sunday.

Boston College: Visits Syracuse on Sunday.

No. 16 Xavier beats No. 17 Providence 85-83 in OT thriller

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CINCINNATI — Jack Nunge had 23 points and 14 rebounds as No. 16 Xavier held off No. 17 Providence 85-83 in an overtime thriller Wednesday night.

Colby Jones and Souley Boum each scored 20 for the Musketeers, who won a first-place showdown in the Big East without injured forward Zach Freemantle.

Noah Locke had 22 points and Ed Croswell added 21 for Providence (17-6, 9-3), which had beaten Xavier three straight times.

A layup by Boum put the Musketeers (18-5, 10-2) ahead 82-79 with 51 seconds remaining in overtime. A turnover by the Musketeers led to a layup by Devin Carter that cut Xavier’s lead to one with 24 seconds left.

Boum hit one of two free throws, and Jared Bynum’s 3-point attempt from the left corner rimmed out at the buzzer as the Musketeers held on.

Xavier played its first game without Freemantle, the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. He is expected to miss four weeks with a left foot injury, the same foot that required surgery in 2021.

Jerome Hunter, who has excelled off the bench for the Musketeers, made his first start of the season and scored nine points with eight rebounds. Xavier had used the same starting lineup in each of its previous 11 Big East games.

Things started well for the Musketeers. who went on a 12-1 run to build a 25-11 lead.

With Boum on the bench with two fouls, the Musketeers didn’t have a field goal in the final 4:18 of the first half and the Friars pulled to 39-35 at halftime.

Providence outscored Xavier 8-2 to start the second half and took its first lead, 43-41, with 17:41 left.

There was a frantic finish to the second half, with Adam Kunkel’s 3-pointer putting Xavier ahead 76-73 with 55 seconds left. But then Bynum banked in a tying 3 and Boum missed two long shots to send the game to overtime.

BIG PICTURE

Providence: The Friars, who won their first Big East regular-season title last year, entered the night tied atop the conference standings with Xavier and No. 14 Marquette, which hosted Villanova later. Providence was picked fifth in the preseason.

Xavier: Hunter, who averages 14 minutes, left with three minutes remaining in OT with an apparent cramp in his right leg. With Freemantle out, Hunter played 36 minutes.

UP NEXT

Providence: Hosts last-place Georgetown on Wednesday.

Xavier: Will host St. John’s on Saturday.

Florida upends No. 2 Tennessee 67-54 behind Colin Castleton

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Colin Castleton had 20 points and nine rebounds, Kyle Lofton added 14 points and Florida used a 13-0 run late in the second half to upend No. 2 Tennessee 67-54 on Wednesday night.

The Volunteers, playing with their highest ranking in four years, lost for the first time in five games. They had won nine of 10.

Tennessee (18-4, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) looked like it had taken control midway through the second half. They outscored Florida by 10 points in the early going to take a six-point lead.

But the Gators (13-9, 6-3) stormed back behind Castleton, who scored 11 of 14 points as Florida rallied. The senior had a dunk, two free throws, a three-point play, a layup and a short jumper – essentially putting the team on his back down the stretch.

Myreon Jones and Will Richard chipped in nine points apiece for the Gators.

Zakai Ziegler led the Vols with 15 points on 6-of-19 shooting. Olivier Nkamhoua added 11 points and nine rebounds for the vistors, who also got 11 points and eight boards from Vescovi Santiago.

Florida led 27-21 at halftime, just the fifth time the Volunteers has trailed at the break this season. Tennessee rallied to win three of the previous four.

The Gators were red hot to start, making six of their first eight shots – including all three from 3-point range – while building a 17-4 advantage. But they quickly cooled against the nation’s best defense, missing nine of their next 11 as Tennessee made cut it to 22-21.

The Vols had it going coming out of the locker room, with Ziegler getting into the paint and making things happen. But it was short-lived – thanks mostly to Castleton.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Tennessee surely will drop a few spots in next week’s AP Top 25 college basketball poll.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers gave up 10 points in the opening four minutes of the games, a rare sluggish start for the nation’s best defense. Tennessee had held four of its first eight SEC opponents scoreless at the first media timeout, roughly the first four minutes of games. It was a sign of things to come.

Florida: The Gators have been resilient much of the season, and this was arguably the most impressive comeback of the season for coach Todd Golden’s team. The Gators squandered a 13-point lead early and a six-point advantage in the second half. But they rallied when it mattered.

IN THE HOUSE

Football coach Billy Napier watched the game from a few rows behind Florida’s bench alongside his two sons and receiver Ricky Pearsall. Former Florida tennis star Ben Shelton, the NCAA singles champion in 2022, also was in attendance. So was former Gators and NFL quarterback Doug Johnson.

UP NEXT

Tennessee hosts No. 25 Auburn and former coach Bruce Pearl on Saturday.

Florida plays at Kentucky on Saturday. The Gators have lost seven of eight in the series.

No. 8 Kansas avenges earlier loss to No. 7 Kansas State, 90-78

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Jalen Wilson had 20 points, Kevin McCullar Jr. added 16 points and 13 rebounds, and No. 8 Kansas avenged a loss to Kansas State just a couple of weeks ago with a 90-78 victory over the seventh-ranked Wildcats.

Dajuan Harris Jr. scored 18 for the Jayhawks (18-4, 6-3 Big 12), who built a 12-point halftime lead before coasting to their 17th straight home win over the Wildcats in the 10th matchup of top-10 teams in series history.

Kansas has rebounded nicely from a rare three-game skid that included the overtime loss to Kansas State, and made sure to avoid taking back-to-back losses in its storied home for the first time since the 1988-89 season.

Markquis Nowell scored 23 points and Keyontae Johnson had 22 to lead the Wildcats (18-4, 6-3), who were trying for their first regular-season sweep of their biggest rival in four decades. Nae’Qwan Tomlin added 11 points and David N’Guessan had 10.

In their first meeting on Jan. 17, the Wildcats raced to a big early lead and controlled the game until late in the second half, when the Jayhawks forced overtime — only for Kansas State to win on Johnson’s alley-oop dunk.

It was the Jayhawks who controlled the rematch.

They used a 16-7 run in the first half that included a technical foul on Kansas State coach Jerome Tang to build a 32-19 lead. And when Johnson answered with eight straight points for the Wildcats, and the lead was eventually trimmed to four, the reigning national champs pulled away again down the stretch.

It was 37-32 when Wilson hit back-to-back 3-pointers and Zach Clemence added one of his own. And by the time Wilson made two foul shots with about 10 seconds left, Kansas had built a 49-37 lead that it took to the break.

The Wildcats briefly got within six in the second half before the Jayhawks stretched their lead to as many as 16.

OFFICIATING OOPS

Johnson had to sit with two fouls just 2 1/2 minutes into the game. Only problem? The crew of John Higgins, Kip Kissinger and Marques Pettigrew gave one to the wrong player. By the time they corrected their mistake, the Wildcats’ leading scorer had unnecessarily ridden the bench for several minutes.

SELLOUT … AND THEN SOME

For the first time in more than 15 years, more Kansas students redeemed tickets than there was space available inside Allen Fieldhouse. The overflow had to watch the game on screens in the adjacent Horejsi Family Athletics Center, where the Jayhawks play volleyball games. Those students also got refunds and concessions vouchers.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas State’s three losses in league play have been to ranked teams on the road: TCU, Iowa State and Kansas. And with a more forgiving second half to the Big 12 schedule, the Wildcats remain firmly in the conference title hunt.

Kansas got its mojo back with its win over Kentucky last weekend. This victory over another bunch of Wildcats was crucial because the road doesn’t get any easier for the Jayhawks, who are in the midst of three straight games against teams ranked 13th or better.

UP NEXT

Kansas State returns home for another top-10 showdown Saturday against No. 10 Texas.

Kansas hits the road for the third time in four games against No. 13 Iowa State on Saturday.