NCAA BK

Forgrave: Alford proving critics wrong with fast, fun Bruins

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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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LOS ANGELES

When UCLA hired Steve Alford away from New Mexico at the end of last basketball season to replace the fired Ben Howland, there was plenty of consternation in and around Pauley Pavilion.

First was the simple fact that the new hire’s name wasn’t Brad Stevens. Nor was it Shaka Smart. Bruins faithful in search of the next John Wooden — or at least the next Jim Harrick — had expected the school to make a splashy hire, a name worthy of this place’s history. Alford wasn’t considered that. Sports Illustrated wrote that Alford is a poor man’s version of Howland: arrogant, and prickly with the press.

Then there was the style-of-play narrative that developed soon after the Alford hire. Athletic director Dan Guerrero trumpeted the hire as a coach who would bring up-tempo basketball back to Los Angeles, a place that craves the “Showtime” style as much as it craves wins. Pundits across the nation cried foul. It was pointed out that in the past 11 seasons, Alford’s teams had ranked in the top 100 in the nation in adjusted tempo exactly once — and that his most recent team at New Mexico had, yes, won 29 games, but was a slow-paced, defense-first team, not to mention one that couldn’t buy a shot.

Which was not exactly what Guerrero was advertising.

But fast-forward to Pauley Pavilion on Sunday, where Alford’s run-and-gun Bruins — one of the fastest teams in the nation — absolutely obliterated their crosstown rival, a rebuilding USC team, by 34 points to improve to 12-2. It was USC's Andy Enfield, most recently of Florida Gulf Coast’s “Dunk City” fame, who was supposed to be Los Angeles’ sexy offseason hire. He was the up-tempo coach with the players-first style and the supermodel wife. But on Sunday, it was UCLA beating USC 107-73 in Alford’s first Pac-12 game, the Bruins' highest-scoring output all season.

Alford’s team has sped up its tempo over last season, ranking 13th in the nation in points scored as well as 23rd in tempo and ninth in average possession length, according to KenPom.com. The 107 points tied a school record for points against USC, the previous record being set on Dec. 30, 1966, Lew Alcindor’s first season on varsity.

More telling than any number, though, was the first question asked of UCLA’s Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson at the postgame press conference:

“How’s it feel to have a coach that lets you guys play and run and have fun?” a reporter asked.

“Coach always stresses to us: ‘Don’t be robots,’ ” said Anderson, after scoring 23 points and netting his seventh double-double of the season with 12 rebounds. “He gives us the freedom to make plays.”

My, how quickly a narrative can change.

I always thought the Los Angeles media’s (not to mention the UCLA blogosphere’s) immediate demonizing of Alford was patently unfair. First was the obsession with the Pierre Pierce scandal back at Iowa. This was something Alford admitted he handled poorly, but it was also a nearly decade-old mistake that should have been considered old news. Then there were the questions about Alford’s likability: Also unfair, I thought. While Alford can be stiff on camera, and a bit too sensitive to criticism, off camera he’s an incredibly charismatic, friendly, inspiring dude.

I genuinely like the guy. I’ve spoken with coaches who’ve known him for decades, and they say Alford’s long time in the limelight — remember, he was an Indiana high school legend before he starred at Indiana — has made him put up protective armor when he’s in the public eye. People rarely get to see the true Alford.

And then there was the “Alford-plays-slow-and-loses-in-March” trope. I get that he’s only been to the Sweet Sixteen once, and that UCLA coaches will always be judged on national titles, not conference titles. But the truth is he consistently won at places that aren’t exactly traditional basketball powers, at Southwest Missouri State, at Iowa and at New Mexico, places that aren’t attracting blue-blood talent. Maybe part of it was that the Home of Wooden had hired a Disciple of Bobby Knight, the polar opposite of Wooden, and people just couldn’t swallow that.

What I saw on Sunday, though, was impressive, not just that the Bruins ran over their crosstown rival, but how they did it. They shot the lights out, making 58 percent of their shots, including 11 of 23 from 3. They racked up 11 steals, right in line with a steal percentage that’s third in the nation. They showed NBA first-round-level talent in their starters (like Anderson) and even off their bench, with freshman dynamo Zach LaVine scoring 16 points in 26 minutes.

“That’s one of our main things on offense is running,” said fellow freshman Bryce Alford, who channeled his father’s old shooting touch with 20 points, including 4-of-6 shooting from 3. “When we get (defensive) stops like we did today, especially in the first half, we get out and run once we get the rebound. When we get D stops, we’re real dangerous.”

I’m not going to get too carried away about UCLA this year. Not yet, at least. The Bruins lost their two toughest games so far – at Missouri, and against Duke at Madison Square Garden. But this week Alford’s team hosts No. 1 Arizona, a big, balanced, defense-first team with talent and experience that’ll provide UCLA with its toughest test of the year. If Alford’s run-and-gunners can run over Arizona, the flawed narrative on him will do a 180. That happens and this team will be a favorite to win the Pac-12, a mainstay in the top 25 this year, even a dark-horse Final Four team.

I don’t expect that to happen. Arizona is really, really good, and I don’t know how UCLA can hang with that athletic Arizona front line. It wouldn’t shock me, though. This UCLA team has always been great offensively; now Alford points out their incremental improvements on defense and the boards. This team is incredibly talented. The Bruins are also incredibly well-coached. And they’re having fun out there. You can tell.

It’s just a matter of time until the rest of the basketball world notices.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: Arizona, UCLA, New Mexico

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