UCLA Basketball: The 2018-19 season postmortem

SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 19: Head coach Steve Alford of the UCLA Bruins watches on against the Cincinnati Bearcats during the second round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Golden 1 Center on March 19, 2017 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 19: Head coach Steve Alford of the UCLA Bruins watches on against the Cincinnati Bearcats during the second round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Golden 1 Center on March 19, 2017 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /

The UCLA basketball team has finally finished their dreadful 2018-19 season. Go Joe Bruin looks at the season that wasn’t and looks at what will come next for the most storied program in college basketball history.

Just under a year ago, the UCLA basketball team had lost to St. Bonaventure in the NCAA Tournament play-in game. It was another embarassing end to another underwhelming season.

RELATED: UCLA Loses to ASU, Ending Their Roller Coaster Season

It was an end to a season that was shrouded in controversy to start as three members of the team were arrested in China for shoplifting. The three players were suspended for the year, though one, LiAngelo Ball, left the program. Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, two of the Bruins’ big men, had stayed to take their punishment though they would be sidelined, leaving the frontcourt with limited depth.

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Though upperclassmen Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh did their best to keep the season afloat, the Bruins could not escape the ineptness of their head coach Steve Alford.

After finishing the season 21-12, Bruins fans (once again) had enough of the underachieving. UCLA was supposed to be elevated back to greatness after the firing of Ben Howland back in 2013. Unfortunately, five years after the hiring of Steve Alford, UCLA has been demoted to an afterthought.

In December of 2016, the UCLA Athletic Department spent a ton of money buying out Jim Mora and bringing in Chip Kelly, the best available football coach at the time. It was a move that shocked Bruins fans (in a good way) as it showed that UCLA was finally willing to spend some dough and get a competent coach. Things were changing in Westwood and it was time for the basketball team to change along with it.

Unfortunately, the UCLA athletic department did not pull the trigger on Alford and there were several reasons for it. This might have been a good time to send Alford packing after another subpar season, but having recently spent a large sum of money to get Kelly, having a solid hoops recruiting class come in and no discernible basketball coach available equal to Kelly’s stature did not make this a good time to act on firing the Bruin coach.

Alford was apparently being given one more chance, but it was to come with an ultimatum. Last off-season, it was reported that Alford, with all of the talent he would be bringing in, needed to get to the Final Four (or win the conference and make a deep tourney run) or he would be terminated.

Though Bruins fans were not happy that Alford was still in charge of the program, it made sense. Time needed to be taken with such a massive decision on the AD’s hands. Dan Guerrero needed to see how this played out because firing Alford and making another bad coaching hire would not look good for an athletic director at the end of his tenure, especially after multiple failed coaching hires.

With all this hanging over UCLA basketball heading into the 2018-19 season, there seemed to be a lot of fans torn about the direction of the program. Alford had not elevated the status of UCLA basketball, but this new year could possibly help him do that. The Bruins were bringing in a massive recruiting class which included 5-star center Moses Brown, 4-star point Tyger Campbell, SG Jules Bernard, SG David Singleton, PF Shareef O’Neal, and 3-star center Kenny Nwuba.

This was in addition to PG Jaylen Hands, SF Kris Wilkes, SG Prince Ali, SF Chris Smith, PF Alex Olesinski, PF Cody Riley, and C Jalen Hill. It was a young team, but one that had a lot of talent.

Hands and Wilkes were returning after testing out the waters of the NBA Draft, Riley and Hill were once again available after their season-long suspension and the freshmen were all yearning to get things going.

Unfortuantely, the Bruins would go into the 2018-19 season limping.

Just before the season started, within a two week span, UCLA found out that three Bruins would suffer from injuries. Olesinski (foot), Campbell (ACL), and O’Neal (heart issue) would not start the season for UCLA. In fact, Olesinski was the only one that would not be sidelined for the season, though he would miss several weeks. The Bruins would be without their backup point guard Campbell and another talented big man in O’Neal who would need to have heart surgery and that was a major blow to their depth.

It was unfortunate, but UCLA still had to move forward. They still had experience with Hands, Wilkes and Ali, but depth and youth (and coaching flaws) were a concern.

The Bruins started the season with four consecutive wins, scoring over 90 points in three of those contests. UCLA was able to score, but other issues remained. Issues that irked Bruins fans in the previous seasons under Alford. Lack of defense, lack of in-game changes, and lack of fight… it was as if Alford thought that he could mask his deficiencies with young talent. That changed in their next two games when UCLA participated in the Las Vegas Invitational.

The Bruins were brutalized by #11 Michigan State, 87-67 in another embarassing nationally televised loss. Though UCLA started their next game with some fire, It fizzled when #7 North Carolina had a monumental second half to pull out the 94-78 win.

Though many chalked this up to UCLA being very young and inexperienced, those that have closely followed the Bruins knew their problems ran deeper.

The Bruins got back on the winning path after their stint in Sin City with victories over Hawaii, LMU, and Notre Dame, but then came four consecutive nails in Alford’s coffin.

After barely edging out Notre Dame, UCLA had an equally lackluster performance against Belmont, except the Bruins did not get the “W” in this one. It would only get worse from there.

In their first true road game of the season, the Bruins got curb stomped at Cincinnati, losing 93-64 in one of the worst loses of the Alford era. They followed that up with an 80-66 defeat at the hands of #15 Ohio State.

The final straw came on Saturday, December 29 when the Bruins put forth one of their worst efforts of the season in a 73-58 loss to Liberty.

That was it. Bruins fans, alumni, boosters and everyone else that reps UCLA basketball had enough. They were all tired of Alford burying this once great program. With the help from megadonor Casey Wasserman, the athletic department finally decided to undo their mistake from 2013.

On the eve of the new year, Steve Alford was finally terminated. Assistant coach Murray Bartow, a coach Alford brought in during the off-season to help with defense, would be taking over as interim head coach.

The end of mediocrity was here, but there was still a lot to do before UCLA could once again take their place as the best team in college basketball, especially with the Pac-12 portion of the schedule yet to be played.

Conference play wasn’t any better, but there were slight improvements with Bartow in control. A change in lineups, a bit more emphasis on defense, holding players accountable, and in-game adjustments were able to help the Bruins get a few solid wins in conference play, but it did not turn UCLA into the powerhouse team they should have been since the start of the season, er, Alford’s tenure.

The Bruins started conference playing with big wins over Stanford and Cal and follow that up with an exciting overtime come back victory at Oregon, but three straight loses brought UCLA back down to earth and quelled the “Bartow for head coach” campaign.  Big losses to Oregon State, USC, and Arizona State proved that the little changes Bartow was making, would not make a big difference this season.

The rest of Pac-12 play would be a roller coaster ride that the majority of UCLA basketball fans wanted off of. The Bruins would  have blowout losses intermixed with exciting victories, but even in this morose season that the Pac-12 produced, the Bruins were not able to find their footing and take control of a very bad year in the Conference of Champions.

The Bruins had made several efforts to climb up the standings but they were not going to get a regular season championship as Washington was the dominant force this season. No matter, getting a first round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament was still a respectable goal.

With wins late in the season over Oregon State, Oregon, and USC, the Bruins found them selves tied for third in the standings. If they could win at least one of their two remaining games of the regular season against Colorado and Utah, they would have a very good chance to lock up that first round bye.

It did not happen as UCLA was brutalized by both teams.

Those losses forced them into the 7-seed in the tournament. They would have to win four games in a row to win the tourney and get an NCAA Tournament bid. Fun times.

UCLA did well in their first Pac-12 contest as they had another surprisingly energetic game which saw them take down Stanford, but that didn’t last. In their next game, they were no match for Arizona State. The Bruins were doomed from the start as they lost their best outside shooter, David Singleton, who broke his foot in the final minutes of the first round game against Stanford. UCLA was properly throttled by the Sun Devils which finally put this forgettable 2018–19 season to an end.

That’s it. No NCAAs or NIT for this team. The season that started with Steve Alford in charge and no hope for the future, ends on a down note, but with plenty of hope for the future. The Bruins will have the majority of the team returning and UCLA basketball fans are excited for several young players who showed a lot of growth this season like Singleton, Hill, Brown and Smith. The Bruins also have 4-star SF Jaime Jacquez and 3-star SG Jake Kyman coming in.

Oh yeah, there is also that small detail about hiring a new coach. This is not going to be fumbled the way the last hiring was. UCLA has put together a committee to make sure that they locate and hire the best fit for the program and return them to national prominence.

Many names have been thrown around. Tony Bennett, Jamie Dixon, Kevin Keatts, just to name a few and that makes many fans excited at the fact that UCLA will be going after the top coaches in the country. Though UCLA will go through an extensive interview and vetting process, Bruins fans should take comfort in knowing that this hire will not be screwed up (hopefully).

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Still, despite the fact that UCLA had to endure one of the worst seasons and coaching tenures in their illustrious history, they know better things are on the horizon. What is that old saying? Oh yeah, it’s always darkest before dawn.