After Friday night's 62-56 loss at Colorado, UCLA coach Steve Alford was asked to assess the play of his son, Bryce Alford. After praising his son's effort and defense, the father cautiously admitted that his son's eight points on 2-of-16 shooting -- including 0-for-9 from 3 -- had at least something to do with shot selection.
"There were some ill-advised shots," Alford said. "He wants to do so well. There were some tough shots. We've had several guys take some tough shots, and that's what we've been working on -- working on our offense more to where we are attacking the rim and going inside-out."
Two days later, Utah blew the Bruins off the floor. The final score was 71-39; UCLA never cut the lead to fewer than 30 points in the game's final eight minutes. It was the Bruins' fifth straight loss. In their past four games -- beginning with that legendary 41-to-7-at-the-half thrashing by Kentucky in Chicago -- UCLA has scored 189 points in 270 possessions, good for .07 points per trip.
Alford finished with zero points on 0-of-10 shooting, and making him the reliable fulcrum of fans' anger, but he was hardly alone: UCLA shot just 1-of-11 from 3 and just 14-of-41 from 2, and it attempted just 15 free throws. Even if you assumed that a lagging, frustrating offense playing on the road against one of the nation's best defenses on the road would yield something ugly, the actual result exceeded all expectations.
The question now isn't whether the 2014-15 UCLA Bruins have problems. They do, and how. The question is: Which of them can Steve Alford fix?
On Sunday, Alford said his players simply needed to get off the road and back into Pauley Pavilion, "where our guys practice every day," and where they would receive an immediate boost of confidence that would in turn translate into more accurate shooting.
Unfortunately, the Bruins' issues go far deeper than confidence on the catch. Chief among them -- the one identified all the way back in the summer -- is a distinct lack of depth. Beyond the starters (guards Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Norman Powell and forwards Kevon Looney and Tony Parker), only seven-foot freshman Thomas Welsh has earned more than 33 percent of the team's available minutes. This goes beyond fatigue or matchup problems: When his guys aren't playing well, or when a punitive benching might be in order, Alford is essentially stuck.
That's one problem that can't be fixed, at least this season. Another, as Yahoo!'s Jeff Eisenberg pointed out Sunday, is UCLA's lack of an actual point guard. A year ago, the Bruins were embarrassed with backcourt riches, 6-foot-7 point-forward Kyle Anderson chief among them. With Anderson, Jordan Adams, and would-be star sophomore guard Zach LaVine all gone to the NBA, Bryce Alford remains the team's most viable point guard option. The problem is that he isn't really a point guard. As Jeff wrote, "he has a volume shooter's mentality and lacks the court vision, shot selection and ability to create off the dribble the point guard position demands."
The worth of a "true" point guard is often overstated (and based on vague measures in the first place). You don't have to be mid-1990s Mark Jackson if you're effective. By any standard, though, Bryce Alford has struggled, no doubt in part thanks to the increased workload he has been handed. Even when his shot is falling (as it was earlier in the season) few would argue that he or Powell or Hamilton actively make their teammates better.
Then again, this problem may not be quite as intractable as it seems. Alford already recognizes it: UCLA's offense can only improve if it plays inside out.
Parker, Looney and Walsh represent a genuine challenge for opposing defenses, a three-man crew of forwards whose rebounding commands effort and attention. Looney, a five-star prospect, has been great around the rim, long and active with impressive finishing finesse. But he's been the focus of a post-up play just 16 times all season, according to Synergy scouting data. Even Welsh, who plays fewer minutes, has him beat (19 possessions), while Parker has earned the lion's share of post-ups (72 possessions). All together, UCLA has thrown the ball into the block on just 10.5 percent of its offensive possessions this season. That number has to go up. The touches should go to Looney. Maybe the defense has to double, or at least sink to the middle, a little bit more.
There's a potential knock-on effect here: Powell has been a good spot-up shooter all season, and he could benefit from stepping into a few more kick-outs. Alford is better on the catch than he's shown this season: He was a 39 percent 3-point shooter a year ago, when he initiated far fewer possessions, and he has an excellent feel for the mid-range runner. Hamilton is shooting 39 percent from 3 this season, and he can attack the rim off the dribble, too.
These are all workable qualities, but they've gone missing in the past three weeks. Instead, UCLA's offense has stagnated while Alford dribbles, before quickly abandoning whatever set it wanted to run in favor of a simple high screen-and-roll. The ball doesn't move. Players don't move. A shot goes up, and Looney and Parker try to rebound it, and the whole thing kind of looks like those boring pickup games between players who have never met one another before. Everyone just kind of stands around. Even if Looney isn't Hakeem Olajuwon on the low block, it can't possibly get much worse.
A few tweaks won't suddenly make the Bruins' 130th-ranked efficiency offense one to fear. It won't add players to Steve Alford's bench. It won't turn Bryce Alford into Kendall Marshall. But fewer shots from the perimeter, and more from the post -- plus a dash of ball movement, cooked until crisp -- could at least tilt UCLA's hull away from disaster.
Or maybe not! Only one thing's for sure: If there are answers to UCLA's problems, they're going to require a whole lot more than confidence.