UCLA men’s basketball knows how far away it is from making the NCAA Tournament. But instead of trying to get there in one leap, the Bruins will take it step-by-step.
Or one game at a time.
It’s a tired, worn out sports cliche many players and coaches use over and over again when speaking to the media.
But for this Bruins team (14-11, 5-7 Pac-12), it could perhaps be the phrase that catalyzes an end of the season winning streak.
After UCLA let a late second-half lead slip away to then-No. 17 Arizona last Friday, the Bruins’ coaching staff returned to the locker room with one simple message: Let’s get Arizona State and go home with a split.
It’s a conscious decision coach Steve Alford made to change how he handled his relatively young team. Instead of lofting out long-term goals for his team to chase, Alford had instead shifted the focus to just the next game.
“Anytime I’ve applied a little bit of that mental pressure, we haven’t handled it well,” he said. “Last year’s team handled that well, this is a different team. So we’ve changed, whether it’s been more encouragement, more talking about short-term than long-term, this team seems to handle that kind of approach better.”
Junior guard Bryce Alford said that the coaching staff presented the team with goals such as going undefeated at home or getting a road sweep last year. This year, he’s seen the mentality shift to accommodate the freshmen on the team.
“Before each game, they give us like three keys of what we have to focus on the most, which is something they’ve integrated which has been really good for us,” Alford said. “We get so much stuff from scouting, learning plays, learning each individual player, sometimes it’s a lot of stuff to figure out especially for young guys who aren’t used to doing that.”
UCLA had to change its style of play as well three weeks ago. Instead of going big-big – as they have done for much of the season – the Bruins have inserted sophomore guard/forward Jonah Bolden into the starting lineup instead of senior forward/center Tony Parker.
The switch has allowed UCLA to better match up defensively with Pac-12 teams looking to stretch the floor as well as open up the paint offensively for guards looking to drive. Bolden himself has strung together two strong games in Arizona after changing his mindset following a 0-point output in the loss at USC.
“It’s just getting more comfortable in my role,” Bolden said. “My teammates trust me more, (I trust) myself more.”
Day by day the Bruins are getting increasingly comfortable with the change. It couldn’t have come at a better time because, with the conference season coming down to the final six games, UCLA will need to be firing on all cylinders if it has any hopes of making the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve really talked to our guys about getting more focused game-to-game, to take care of one game at a time,” Steve Alford said. “If you do that and we get on a roll, that’s our drive. Can we be that team this year that strings wins together and plays the best basketball at the right time?”
To do so, the Bruins will certainly have to take the challenge on – just as the old cliche goes – one game at a time, starting with Utah (19-7, 8-5) Thursday night.