UCLA has filled its coaching vacancy for its men’s basketball program by hiring former New Mexico head coach Steve Alford, but fans should be cautiously optimistic about the Bruins’ immediate future.
Alford is an excellent coach and his résumé certainly qualifies him for the UCLA job. He has over 20 years of head coaching experience and has had success with multiple teams.
He took Southwest Missouri State on a Cinderella run in the 1999 NCAA Tournament, he won two Big Ten Tournament titles with Iowa, and he has had an impressive tenure with New Mexico, winning the Mountain West Conference in four of his six seasons with the Lobos.
But college basketball has changed drastically since Alford became a coach, and he is stepping into a remarkably difficult challenge.
During the Bruins’ coaching search, their two top targets reportedly rejected them. VCU’s Shaka Smart opted to sign an extension with his current school instead of accepting UCLA’s advances, while Butler’s Brad Stevens also turned down an offer to move to Southern California.
For fans who have been with the Bruins since John Wooden’s glory days, this is likely a shocking development. How can coaches from these mid-majors be turning down an opportunity to lead the most storied program in college basketball history?
But looking at how the one-and-done rule has affected teams across the country raises a different question: Why did Alford leave New Mexico?
The top-two recruiting class from 2012 belonged to Kentucky and UCLA, according to 247 Sports. Both had young, star-studded rosters this season, but it also seemed inevitable that players like Shabazz Muhammad and Nerlens Noel would leave for the NBA after their freshman season.
Coaches at the big, historically dominant programs are under incredible pressure to sign the nation’s top recruits, but this may not be the best way to build a consistently successful program.
Any college basketball fan who read a tip sheet on filling out a bracket knows to avoid picking teams with freshman guards. Experience is needed in March, and when players see their college career as the waiting room before they enter the NBA instead of a place where they can improve themselves as players and as people while building a legacy, programs tend to struggle.
Both the Bruins and the Wildcats lacked the leadership necessary to play consistently this season. This maturity comes from having players who commit to the program for multiple seasons and grow throughout their time at the school.
These are the type of players that Smart and Stevens get at schools like Butler and VCU, and they have had incredible success in the NCAA Tournament with rosters devoid of 4- and 5-star recruits. These coaches get to mold their programs in their image, while Alford will arrive in Los Angeles with plenty of traditions and expectations hanging over his head.
This does not mean that coaches at big programs should completely avoid signing the nation’s most talented high school players, or even that they should pass on a player who is likely to leave after his freshman year.
Howland made it to the Final Four with a freshman-led team, and Kentucky won the 2012 national championship with a roster of young players who immediately left for the NBA. Succeeding with a young team is certainly possible, but it is a high-stakes game.
With massive roster turnovers from year to year, coaches have to constantly evolve and reform their systems and methods to fit their roster. If the coach gets his strategy wrong at the start of the season, a young team’s confidence may be irreparably damaged.
But on a team where players are committed to playing for multiple years, there is significantly more stability from season to season.
At UCLA, Alford may have few opportunities to build relationships and create leaders out his players over time. He may run into the same problems that Howland did with immature but talented players.
On the other hand, he may be able to strike the right balance between top-level talent who are likely to have brief stays in Westwood and players in it for the long haul.
But a significant amount of uncertainty still hangs over the UCLA program, and for now, Bruins fans should measure their expectations.