SAN DIEGO – At the most critical juncture of UCLA's season, with the Bruins reeling from an 18-point loss at lowly Washington State earlier this month, Steve Alford did something many coaches in his position wouldn't have done.
Instead of forcing his team to endure a grueling practice or a marathon film session as punishment, Alford gave the Bruins two days off and surprised them by showing a highlight video of their best moments this season rather than the Washington State tape when they returned.
"It was a huge relief," senior forward Travis Wear said. "As a player, you dread going into film after a loss like that. To not have to relive that experience and to say forget about it and move on, we were all really happy. He knew we were a better team than that. We knew we were a better team than that. There was no reason to go back, watch that film and see ourselves play that poorly."
Shrewd decisions like that one are helping Alford gradually build a case that he's the right coach for UCLA despite rampant skepticism among Bruins fans when athletic director Dan Guerrero plucked him from New Mexico last spring. UCLA has responded to Alford's psychological ploy with its best stretch of the season, punctuating a five-game win streak by overwhelming 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin 77-60 on Sunday to advance to the Sweet 16.
If Thursday's matchup with top-seeded Florida will be UCLA's first Sweet 16 trip since 2008, it ends an even longer drought for Alford. The first-year UCLA coach is making his first Sweet 16 appearance since 1999, an accomplishment that he downplayed even though it will surely help win over critics who questioned whether a coach with a history of early NCAA tournament wash-outs could succeed at a program with the expectations and pedigree of UCLA.
"I've said all along it's a humbling experience being at UCLA," Alford said. "Extremely proud, extremely blessed to be at an institution with all this tradition. Everything that UCLA stands for, it's top of the food chain. So you either look at those things as burdens or you look at them as blessings. From day one, I've told my staff we're going to look at it as a blessing and do everything we can to build champions."
It would be remarkable if Alford wins over skeptical UCLA fans this March because he arrived in Westwood set up to fail.
The names that leaked out as UCLA targets during its coaching search included the likes of Florida's Billy Donovan, Butler's Brad Stevens and VCU's Shaka Smart. As a result, when those three predictably stayed put, the hire of a coach who hadn't taken a team to a Sweet 16 in 14 years felt like a letdown compared to a two-time national champion and the architects of some of the most improbable Final Four runs in college basketball history.
"He has a rock-star image with an opening act resume," wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke the day Alford was hired. Then noting Alford's early NCAA tournament exits at Iowa and New Mexico, Plaschke added, "His sideline presence sold tickets and inspired confidence until it came time to win big games."
The skepticism toward Alford was obvious in the tone of the questions he received during his initial press conference at UCLA.
It took all of two questions before a reporter asked about his handling of the sexual assault allegations against former Iowa player Pierre Pierce back in 2002, catching Alford so off guard he apologized for his response a month later. Questions followed about Alford's lack of Los Angeles-area recruiting connections, his ties to longtime John Wooden critic Bob Knight, his willingness to play faster and more freely than the previous regime and above all else, his inability to make deep NCAA tournament runs.
Of course, some of the backlash was unfair because it held Alford to UCLA-level standards even though he had never coached a program with nearly the pedigree, talent base or resources of UCLA.
Alford inherited a New Mexico program coming off a 4-12 season in the Mountain West and helped the Lobos win or share the league title four times in six seasons. Three NCAA tournaments in eight seasons at Iowa is less impressive, but the two coaches that followed Alford have produced one appearance and zero victories between them.
Regardless, whether Alford's track record was good enough for UCLA or not, the job he has done with the roster he inherited looks unassailable right now.
He persuaded the holdovers from Howland's final team to remain in Westwood rather than considering a transfer. He shifted all-league sophomore Kyle Anderson to his natural point guard position after Howland played him off-ball as a small forward last season. And he altered his style of play to fit his roster, going from 239th in tempo last season at New Mexico when he had two plodding big men to 46th this season at UCLA when he has a stable of athletic, high-scoring wings.
"He gives us way more freedom to go out and make plays," Wear said. "He relies on our basketball IQ as individuals to make the right decisions. If you make a mistake, you make a mistake. He doesn't penalize us for it. He's not going to penalize us for missing a wide-open shot. He just wants us to play as hard as we can."
The most important tactical move Alford made before the NCAA tournament once again was keeping the atmosphere loose. Even as he emphasized not overlooking Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin teams that entered the NCAA tournament on long win streaks, Alford also let his players blare rap music during practice and took time out of a film session early in the week to show another highlight video of UCLA's best moments from the Pac-12 tournament.
Alford's fun-loving demeanor was on display again Sunday in the final minutes of a game UCLA led for all but 39 seconds early in the first half. As sophomore forward Tony Parker came off the floor late in the game after missing a free throw, Alford ribbed him about how badly he'd missed.
"We always have little laughs about my free throws," Parker said. "The whole huddle was about my free throws. I shot it short, so you know it was on when I got to the bench with Coach Alford. He talks about my free throws. I talk about how he didn't play any defense and his hairspray. He's had the same hairstyle since 1947.
"It's so much fun playing for him. He's a great dude. You want to win for that guy."
Right now, UCLA is winning for Alford. And if that continues, he may yet win even the most demanding Bruins fans over too.
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