Pressure Mounts on Steve Alford After UCLA Falls to Ohio State

CHICAGO — It’s likely just matter of time for Steve Alford in Westwood.

UCLA did show some toughness and fight on Saturday afternoon at the United Center, but there is no such thing as a moral victory. Not with this program. Sure, the expectations are completely out of whack when it comes to the Bruins. It’s not the 1960’s or 70’s anymore.

However, Alford is in danger of not making the NCAA tournament for the second time in the last four seasons.

That’s just not acceptable.

“I’m a man of God, so I’ve got an audience of one,” Alford said after the 80-66 loss to Ohio State, the program’s third straight setback.

I was there for the embarrassing first-half performance against Michigan State in Las Vegas a few weeks back. The Bruins then got beaten handily a night later by a North Carolina team that was coming off a setback to Texas. Last week, there was a loss at Pauley Pavilion to Belmont, and a 29-point drubbing at the hands of Cincinnati.

Let’s face it: The only time that UCLA has truly been nationally relevant since Alford took over was a few years ago when Lonzo was throwing no-look passes all over Pauley. Sure, the Bruins got to the Sweet 16 in each of Alford’s first two seasons — but UCLA was a combined 23-13 in the Pac-12 in those years and was fortunate to draw Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin in the first two rounds in 2014 and SMU and UAB in 2015.

UCLA fell to 7-5 on Saturday with the loss to Ohio State, and the good news for Alford, I guess, is that at least the Bruins kept it semi-close – unlike the last time the Bruins were in Chicago for the CBS Sports Classic and went into the locker room trailing Kentucky 41-7 at the break.

The bad is that it will be difficult to turn it around in conference play and get into the tournament. Back in 2015, the Bruins lost five straight in December and early January, but 11 wins in the Pac-12 were enough to get into the NCAA tourney. There’s no chance that 11 league victories gets UCLA into the NCAA tournament — not with the Pac-12’s miserable resume this year.

“Our league has not performed well,” Alford admitted. “That’s obvious.”

In Alford’s defense, he has been hit with key injuries. Freshman point guard Tyger Campbell (torn ACL) would have helped this team as a quick, floor leader who can make those around him better – unlike Jaylen Hands. Shareef O’Neal, Shaq’s son, is out for the year with a heart issue and would have helped in the depth department. Alford said that Alex Olesinski (foot) could return next week, but if Olesinski is going to be considered a difference-maker, the Bruins might be in more trouble than anyone thought.

No one cares about the injuries or inexperience, not at UCLA.

It’s not as though UCLA doesn’t have talent. The Bruins have had a top 10 recruiting class each of the past three years.

“They are so soft,” one NBA executive who has seen UCLA play multiple times told Stadium. “They clearly have more talent than Ohio State, but don’t play with any toughness or intensity. It’s like they don’t even want to be out there.”

UCLA is leaning towards making a move after the season, one source close to the program told Stadium. Several names have been floated out there — including former Bruins point guard and NBA coach Earl Watson and the newly unemployed Fred Hoiberg, who was let go by the Chicago Bulls earlier this season.

One target to keep an eye on, according to a source close to the situation, is Notre Dame’s Mike Brey. He’s spurned other big-time programs in the past, but one source said he’ll be on the short list when UCLA opens.

The Alford era appears to have run its course. He said he wasn’t concerned about the fan base potentially turning on him, but Alford is a smart man. He’s well-aware that this isn’t up to UCLA standards.

“I’m a fan of basketball,” he said on Saturday. “I’m not happy.”

The UCLA fan base — which numbers far more than one — isn’t happy, either.