SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Steve Alford was criticized for not winning enough, considered to be on the hot seat heading into this season. Bryce Alford was knocked for shooting too much, expected to have a hard time taking a back seat to freshman phenom Lonzo Ball.
Look at them now.
Through all the trials and tribulations, father and son arrive at the end of their four-year run at UCLA together with a chance to do something special on their way out.
“There have been ups and downs and the challenges of being a coach’s kid and dealing with that in LA and the pressures that come behind that,” Bryce Alford said. “But at the end of the day I wouldn’t trade my experience at UCLA and my experience for anything and I don’t know if I could have done it without him by my side.”
When Steve Alford was hired at UCLA in 2013, it came as a bit of a surprise. He had just signed a 10-year contract extension at New Mexico and said he was happy in Albuquerque, leaving Lobos fans feeling jilted.
UCLA supporters were not exactly thrilled about his hiring, believing he was he was not an upgrade from Ben Howland, who led the Bruins to the Final Four three times. They wanted a bigger name.
Alford took the pressure of coaching at a college basketball blue blood head on and had a successful start in Westwood, taking UCLA to the Sweet 16 his first two seasons.
One below-average season changed perceptions of Alford quickly. As UCLA struggled to a 15-17 record last season, fans began calling for his ouster despite a massive buyout. One disgruntled fan flew a banner from the back of a plane that read “UCLA deserves better! Fire Alford!” and another had a similar message put on a billboard truck. A petition calling for his termination quickly gained more than 1,000 signatures.
Alford penned an apology letter to Bruins fans and returned a one-year contract extension signed after his first season. Even after signing his best recruiting class since arriving in Westwood, headed by Ball and TJ Leaf, Alford was under pressure to win this season.
The Bruins did. With Ball running the show and the younger Alford sliding comfortably into a more off-the-ball spot, UCLA won its first 13 games while rising to No. 1 in the AP Top 25 and entered the NCAA Tournament at 29-4.
The Bruins won their South Region opener 97-80 over Kent State and will face Cincinnati on Sunday with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line.
“We have had some good wins, some key wins, lost four games in the year to three teams and yet we have avenged all those losses,” Steve Alford said. “To be at 33 games in and starting the national tournament knowing that you’ve beaten everybody on your schedule speaks volumes to what these young men have done because that’s not easy to do.”
Bryce Alford has been a key cog in his final season with the Bruins.
He originally signed to play at New Mexico and followed his father to UCLA. Despite the Bruins’ early success, he was criticized for shooting too much, for having too much freedom playing under his father. Bryce also was a target for opposing fans, his scrappy play and brashness getting under skin across the Pac-12 and beyond.
Bryce didn’t listen to the vitriol and kept firing away, often hitting shots in rapid succession to rally UCLA to wins or push them past a rallying opponent. When Ball arrived with so much fanfare, the younger Alford ended up finishing second on the team in scoring at 15.6 points per game while shooting 46 percent from 3-point range.
His career is winding down, the 6-foot-3 guard will leave is UCLA’s all-time leader in 3-pointers made with 322 and his 1,893 points is fifth on the Bruins’ illustrious all-time scoring list.
“Very proud of him from a coaching standpoint of seeing how he’s evolved and gotten better as a player each and every year,” Steve Alford said. “Very proud of him as a father of how he’s handled everything. He’s been unwavering. He’s stayed true to his beliefs. He’s been a tremendous teammate, great leader, somebody that guys want to play with and be around.”
The Alfords’ time on the court together could end Sunday or last all the way until the confetti canons fire in Arizona. Regardless of what happens, it’s been a once-in-a-lifetime trip.