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UCLA basketball faces an uncertain future

A wretched loss against St. Bonaventure ended a tumultuous season in Westwood, and the program’s future looks uncertain at best and grim at worst.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Four - Dayton
Thomas Welsh and Alec Wulff deserved far better ends to their UCLA careers than the one they received against St. Bonaventure.

In what was a frustrating, absurd and downright exasperating season in Westwood, the end it met against St. Bonaventure was rather fitting.

On the court, UCLA looked disjointed, disinterested and dispirited, almost as if they’d never seen a zone defense in their life. Kris Wilkes was suspended for the start of the game, Thomas Welsh only took 5 shots in his last game as a Bruin, and Aaron Holiday had 10 turnovers by himself and was unable to drag the Bruins across the line. Steve Alford had no answers, and his team’s play reflected the apparent lack of preparation.

As trite as it is to say, the Bonnies simply wanted it more and looked better prepared than their opponents.

It was quite the way to end the season for Steve Alford, who followed up a mesmerizing, if cut prematurely short, season last year with Lonzo Ball and company with a hectic and dissatisfying 21-12 final record. The 11-7 finish in the Pac-12, good for 4th in a conference which won exactly zero NCAA tournament games, is a bitter pill to swallow as well. Sure, he was without 3 cogs in the wheel (and he was the first to tell anyone who’d listen about that all season), but he’s still responsible for the rest of the roster. And time and time again, he failed to adequately prepare the team to play to the best of its ability.

Cincinnati bumrushed them off their own court. Michigan took advantage of a late collapse, as did Stanford and Oregon State. Colorado clowned the Bruins twice. Aside from the loss against Arizona, where Deandre Ayton turned into Thanos in Vegas, the rest of the team’s losses were indicative of poor effort, poor coaching or both.

Aaron Holiday was magnificent for 90% of this season, but the 10% in which he turned the ball over and tried to do too much was excruciating to watch. Thomas Welsh’s newfound three point stroke and rebounding prowess were joys to watch, but he was also left to disappear at times. Jaylen Hands had a frustrating first season and never grew into the point guard he has the potential to be, and Kris Wilkes was streaky, both for great and for worse.

And while the coaches themselves don’t play, they do bring put the players on the court and do prepare them to win games. While UCLA has never struggled for talent with Alford at the helm, everything else needed to win basketball games at a high level has been a struggle for 4 out of the last 5 years.

Steve Alford is now, historically speaking, one of the worst coaches in UCLA basketball history.

It’s not hyperbole. Bruin Report Online’s David Woods compiled a selection of stats that show that to be true. See below:

And so on and so forth. You get the idea.

UCLA basketball has been on the wrong side of relevant for the large majority of the past decade, which is how long it’s been since Ben Howland took the Bruins to their third straight Final Four in 2008. Since then, aside from Howland’s last season, when UCLA won the Pac-12 title in 2013, UCLA has failed to advance past the Sweet 16. Even then, that 2013 Pac-12 title came in yet another weak year for the conference and ended with UCLA losing by 20 points to a 12 seeded Minnesota team.

And in Steve Alford’s five years, the results have been no better. Alford has won 117 games in his time at UCLA, which is an average of 23.4 wins per season. That is just above average for a bubble team. For comparison’s sake, Arizona has won 151 games and 4 Pac-12 titles, one of which it shared with Oregon, which has won 137 games of its own in five years.

And given the talent that is at UCLA’s disposal and that Alford has procured in his time in Westwood, it is a severe underachievement.

Speaking of talent, one of the most frequently cited reasons for keeping Alford another season is the incoming recruiting class for next season. It is undeniably talented.

Five top-75 players, including Shareef O’Neal, son of Shaquille, will don the Four Letters next season. It is an impressive array of players, and guys like David Singleton, Moses Brown, Jules Bernard, Tyger Campbell and Kenneth Nuwba are a class that rivals those of Kentucky and Duke (indeed, UCLA’s class is currently ranked 3rd by 247Sports).

But the 2018 team will also be extremely young. Aaron Holiday looks a likely candidate to leave for the NBA, and after how well he played this season, can you blame him? Welsh and GG Goloman are gone, and Kris Wilkes may test the draft waters, too. No matter how talented the players might be, as of now, they still haven’t gone to their senior proms yet, and they need to be coached and well-prepared.

Furthermore, where will this team’s leadership come from? Last season, Lonzo Ball changed the culture of UCLA basketball by himself, and even seniors like Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton followed his cue. Perhaps a point guard like Campbell can carry a team forward, but given how much UCLA’s offense devolved into hero-ball and forced Aaron Holiday to do everything to make something happen, is that a healthy culture for such a young team?

And ultimately, do you trust Alford, who hasn’t coached a UCLA team to the top 50 of defensive efficiency per since his first season in 2014, to instill defensive fundamentals and good habits into a team in which at least 3 starters won’t yet have faced high-level college offense?

His track record suggests you don’t.

Finally, above all else, this just isn’t UCLA basketball. It’s apathetic, and the lack of fans at many home games in Pauley Pavilion reflected that. It’s lackadaisical and lethargic, as evidenced by the loss to St. Bonaventure.

And increasingly, UCLA, one of the sport’s most decorated and illustrious programs and home to more national championships than any other program, is irrelevant.