There are few programs in the country with the tradition, history and mystique that the UCLA Bruins encompass. It could be said, though, that those things also bring a world’s worth of expectations with it. Those expectations, mind you, are the same reason Steve Lavin and Ben Howland were not good enough to carry the UCLA program into the future. UCLA fans are now hoping that their current head coach, Steve Alford, happens to be a different story.
Just a year removed from Howland getting the heave, Alford has his version of the Bruins ready to face the Florida Gators in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Pretty good for his first year at the helm, right?
Not that it is bad either, but Sweet 16 runs aren’t going to cut it for the UCLA fanbase. Not when Howland got axed five years after making back-to-back-to-back Final Four runs or, before that, Lavin got canned for making at least the Sweet 16 five out of his seven years as the leader of their program.
Simply put, the Sweet 16 is a great accomplishment, for programs not named UCLA.
Oddly enough, however, Steve Alford making it to this portion of the Big Dance is a pretty substantial personal accomplishment. Before this year, Aflord had not participated in a Sweet 16 game since 1999, when he was the head coach of Southwest Missouri State.
None of that really matters now, though. People on social media might use the fact that it has been well over a decade since Alford marched this deep into the NCAA Tournament, but he also never had a program with such resources quite like UCLA at his fingertips before.
All of that leads the Bruins and Alford to tomorrow night. One game that can transform the UCLA program back into a national darling and far from the perception of a program and a fanbase that has been clinging to the memories of John Wooden for far too long. Which, fair or not, is how a large portion of people outside the Bruins’ reach view everything surrounding UCLA.
It is going to be no easy task. Florida is everyone’s favorite pick to win the entire shebang. Led by their own masterful coach, Billy Donovan, the Gators aren’t going to care about how important this game is to the resurgence of a UCLA program that never really fell off the map.
Which brings us back to the perception of Steve Alford not being a great tournament coach. It also brings us right smack dab in the middle of the reality of UCLA basketball. Both of which might not be true, but each has something riding on the line on Thursday night.
For UCLA, it is the idea that they aren’t clinging onto the past. That letting Howland go was not only the right move, but a progressive one. A decision that will have ripple effects for years, leading to more top-tier recruits, and a return to annual visits to the Final Four.
Alford, on the other hand, has even more at stake. Not only does he have to prove to the naysayers that he is a good coach, regardless of the time of the year, but he has to show the temperamental UCLA fanbase that they did indeed make the right decision by bringing him in. Especially after the rocky start to his era as the main man in charge of the program.
If the Bruins were to lose, it certainly wouldn’t mean the end of Alford at UCLA. Nor would it mean that UCLA basketball is dead. However, it would help propel the Alford is no better than Howland, who was no better than Lavin, narrative into a full tizzy.
As mentioned earlier, Alford’s perception and UCLA’s reality are meeting on Thursday night. Nothing more than that is at stake because nothing bigger could actually be on the line.
The reality of the UCLA Bruins basketball program is that Sweet 16 runs are not good enough. That’s the reality because they have made it so. Not because of the “failures” of Steve Lavin or Ben Howland. Rather, it has more to do with how they view themselves despite being generations removed from a world in which UCLA rang synonymous with yearly college hoops dominance.
That is the reality that Steve Alford has to deal with. Which is weird considering the perception he brings with him.
So yeah, a spot in the Elite Eight is also on the line. But that is actually playing second fiddle to what is really on the line, the reality of UCLA basketball and perception of Steve Alford merging.
And, honestly, it could go either way.