Sunday, March 31, 2013

Media Monitor: How ESPN May Have Unintentionally Exposed Incompetence at UCLA after the Steve Alford hiring

UCLA hired Steve Alford to be its next mens basketball coach yesterday, and the move has been met with mixed reactions from industry observers. According to
New UCLA head coach Steve Alford can bring the
Bruins back to the highest heights, but how will his
style of roundball play in Westwood? (Photo from
ESPN college basketball writer Jason King, Alford is "the right fit," someone who is "capable of bringing [the luster] back" to the once-great-now-struggling program. Others, like Mark Whicker of the Orange County Register, are not impressed by "the spectacularly mixed bag [of success] he brings to Westwood." A particular point of contention in the argument seems to be the on-floor philosophy that Alford favors. In addition to the needless-to-say goal of winning a national championship, there are also concerns about whether or not an Alford-coached team will draw greater attendance to Pauley Pavilion than the squads of recent years.

From ESPN's Andy Katz, who reported on the UCLA hiring:

"[UCLA athletic director Dan] Guerrero made it clear that he wanted to have a coach who played an exciting style, would help fill the seats at Pauley Pavilion and represented the university and student-athletes well. Alford has a good chance to make all of that happen if he coaches in a similar fashion at UCLA as he did at New Mexico.

'Steve is the perfect fit for UCLA… and brings an up-tempo and team-oriented brand of basketball to Westwood,' Guerrero said."

Glossing over what exactly Katz means by "if [Alford] coaches in a similar fashion at UCLA as he did at New Mexico," Guerrero's statement comes with a very big red-flag that is visible if one merely takes a moment to probe it.

From ESPN LA writer Peter Yoon:

"[Alford is] also a defensive-minded coach who isn’t known for lighting up scoreboards. New Mexico was No. 172 in the nation in scoring this season with 67.4 points per game, so if it’s an entertaining, wide-open style you’re looking for, Alford won’t be bringing it. "
Assuming the stat Yoon cites is correct, the scoring numbers of Alford's squad this season rank about halfway down the list of the 347 basketball teams in the NCAA's Division I. That sounds more like middle-of-the-road than leader-of-the-pack. And that's not all.

As pointed out in a Tweet by Yahoo! Sports blogger Jeff Eisenberg that was quoted on, the notion of an "up-tempo" offense doesn't jive with New Mexico ranking 239th in the country in possessions per 40 minutes in 2013.

I would not characterize myself as someone who knows a great deal about
UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero has some
explaining to do. (Photo from
basketball, but when I read about a team characterized as "up-tempo" in one place and "defensive-minded" in another place, alarms begin to sound in my head (especially knowing UNM's ho-hum scoring average). Those terms aren't usually found in one team's description, unless maybe we're talking about the "Havoc"-wreaking VCU teams coached by Shaka Smart that make their hay by forcing turnovers. Stats are all well and good, but they don't always tell the whole story, so I wanted to try to understand Alford's scheme at UNM a bit better before deciding whether the stats belied the team's actual objectives and abilities. I've seen New Mexico on television maybe twice this year, so I don't have a great grasp on their playing style, but I was curious to know how the man UCLA hired could really build a team that is both fast-paced and stout on defense.

[All of this, of course, makes no judgment on whether or not an "up-tempo" brand of basketball is "an exciting style [that] would help fill the seats at Pauley Pavilion." Winning should bring fans regardless, and if it doesn't, there's a bigger problem afoot in L.A.]

If you Google "steve alford offense," there are a number of prominent search results:

1) A page on describes Alford's "2 Out 3 In Motion Offense" as a "unique" system that "allows the post area to become open for isolation plays and opens up dribble penetration and backdoor cut plays." Even I know that nobody gets backdoor-cut into oblivion on a regular basis, especially not in a power conference. (Spoiler alert: How many times has John Thompson III's Princeton-style offense taken Georgetown to the Final Four? Once in nine years? That's what I thought.)

2) touts a DVD that features Alford's instructions on a "cutting and screening motion offense." The synopsis of the DVD says that "Benefits of motion offense are shot quality, low turnovers…and getting to the free throw line." The goals of these tactics are said to be "easy baskets, open shots and free throw attempts," all of which sound like the objectives of a conservative team that doesn't shoot particularly well and picks its spots carefully.

3) An analysis of the 2-Out/3-In Offense on notes that "the offense does not lend itself well to the fast break…Teams that employ this offense will want to avoid getting into high-scoring games and instead focus on wearing down the opponent."

The three links above took fairly little time to find, and if you're a Bruin fan, that ought to have you concerned. The evidence is clear, at least at first glance, that Guerrero either failed to research the kind of tactics Alford will use in Westwood, or that he lied about such tactics to the school's fanbase, or that he simply confused them for the tactics of another potential coach that he might have researched in the process. Any way you slice it, Guerrero's apparent inability to grasp Alford's methods (an admission embarrassingly and unwittingly made in print for everyone to see) does not speak well for his capacity to adequately steer a coaching search or evaluate candidates.

I am sure it was not ESPN's intention to make Guerrero look bad, and quite honestly, they didn't. Katz was quoting what had already been said, and Yoon was merely providing a statistic on recent performance, but when the two pieces are juxtaposed, it is very easy to draw a logical conclusion. That's good journalism, I think--though some people believe that journalists have an axe to grind which guides their reporting, this case is proof that more often than not, a public figure only has themselves to blame if they have egg on their face in the news.

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