Steve Alford has taken in a lot of basketball in his life.
He played it at a high level, basking in the championship glow of winning the 1987 NCAA championship at Indiana, his hometown team. He competed in the NBA and now he has the closest view of the UCLA express as the fourth-year Bruins coach with a simple of mantra of “go!”
Seeded third in the South Region, UCLA shook off a sluggish first half and kicked it into its own unique gear at a devastatingly efficient pace to buckle No. 6 Cincinnati 79-67 on Sunday night at Golden 1 Center.
In seizing control, UCLA made 7 of 13 3-pointers and dished out 14 assists on 19 field goals to roar back into the Sweet 16 for the third time in four seasons.
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The Bruins (31-4) had 21 assists and three turnovers, giving them just nine turnovers in two entertaining victories in the first NCAA Tournament in Sacramento since 2007 at Arco Arena. That’s rare efficient territory, especially for teams that play fast.
“I don’t know of a more fun basketball team to watch when we’re clicking, and we’ve had a lot of games where we’ve been clicking,” Alford said.
Lonzo Ball is the key clicker, so to speak.
The uncommonly poised 6-foot-6 freshman guard from Chino Hills keyed the second-half charge, hitting three of his four 3-pointers. He seemingly moves in an effortless glide, and perhaps no collegiate athlete today can sense plays and tendencies in a game better. Ball has the attention of more than just his wildly opinionated father. NBA scouts have tracked his efforts all season, including this week at Golden 1.
Ball had 18 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. There have been rumblings that Ball may be a one-and-done player, bound for the riches of the NBA. He certainly has a lot of NBA in his game. His shot is a bit unorthodox, nearly from the hip, but no one is rushing to change a good thing. What works is working.
“I feel like I have a good feel for the game, and when it’s time for me to make plays, I try to do my best.”
I don’t know of a more fun basketball team to watch when we’re clicking, and we’ve had a lot of games where we’ve been clicking.
Steve Alford, UCLA men’s basketball coach
If there was one issue Alford had, it was what Ball just said, the coach adding, “he has a great feel for the game. Not good. Great!”
The Bruins as a group have a good vibe going, leading the country in assists with 21.5 a game, the highest since Kentucky did so in 1996 with 21.8 a game. That Wildcats team won the NCAA title, and that Kentucky program plays UCLA next, in Memphis on Friday.
Bryce Alford, son of the coach, had 16 points, and TJ Leaf and Thomas Welsh each scored 11 for the Bruins, who shot 63 percent in the second half in looking every bit a Final Four team.
Jarron Cumblerland had 15 points for defensive-minded Cincinnati, which finished 24-2 when leading at the half, the other loss coming against Rhode Island in November.
“I told (coach Alford) they got a chance to win the whole thing,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “He’s got a tough job coaching that team with the expectations. I told him I’m rootin’ for him. Proud of my team. Told them there is no shame losing to UCLA in California, a team with maybe the top pick in the draft and at least two other lock NBA players.”
Alford stressed that the Bruins are “taking our coaching staff on an incredible journey. Hopefully, we can keep this thing going.” The point was that he is thinking only of UCLA.
On Sunday, published reports had Indiana in pursuit of Alford. He dismissed those reports, insisting that focus is on the here and now. On Thursday at Golden 1 during a media conference, Alford said Indiana remains dear to him without indicating he was interested in a job when the school fired Tom Crean after nine seasons. He said then of Indiana, “Obviously, that was 30 years ago. I stood on stage with a great group of guys and won a national championship. It’s my home state. I played there. So obviously that comes up.”
“I love UCLA. I love Los Angeles. You’re talking about arguably the greatest ‘brand’ anywhere on the planet, and we’ve got things going at a very high level and we’re excited about it.”
On Sunday night, Alford said of the Indiana speculation, “I addressed the Indiana situation. I don’t have anything else to say on that. This is about our team. I’m not going to address it anymore. The young men that we have in our locker room, it’s phenomenal. I’m going to enjoy this ride as long as we possibly can.”