UCLA Coach Steve Alford spoke to reporters Thursday, one day before his Bruins face the Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament round of 16. Here’s what Alford had to say ahead of the game:
Opening statement: Well, excited to be back in Memphis. We were here three years ago, played a very good Florida team, and now obviously going to play an outstanding Kentucky team. But it’s great to be back here, and our guys have done a tremendous job getting themselves back to here. We’ve had a phenomenal year, and it’s a busy time of year for us. We’re in finals, so we’ve got the better part of 60 percent of our team finishing finals today at 3:30. So we hope the media portion goes fairly quickly because we do have academics that we have to take care of before we get back into team meetings. But we’re very excited about being here.
Q. Don’t you know you’re not supposed to upstage your players on a court like that? Just kidding.
STEVE ALFORD: I told them we have to step it up. Truth be told, we’ve been getting slaughtered. We’ve got guys like Lonzo literally takes a jump shot from the timeline. We were just lucky that they only got one shot at it. I think coaches are down about eight on the half-court shots this year. I told them, though, that the coaches are ahead at the Sweet 16. I don’t think they’re buying it.
Q. Lonzo looked like he had the tape off of his thumb. Can you give us an update on him as well as Ike?
STEVE ALFORD: Yeah, he and Ike are great. I think Lonzo is as close to 100 percent as he’s been in a long, long time and Ike is nearing that. They’ve both practiced all week. Lonzo practiced all last week, too. But Ike has made every practice this week and has been full go. Last week obviously was day-to-day and we were monitoring what he did, but I think he’s going to be near 100 percent, as well. We at least come into this weekend being as close to 100 percent as we can.
Q. Can you hit that shot any time you want still?
STEVE ALFORD: No, no, and it hurts a lot more. It hurts a lot more.
Q. I was going to ask you to compare I guess the growth of De’Aaron Fox from when you played them in December. How has his game matured?
STEVE ALFORD: Well, we thought he was awfully good when we were in Lexington in December, and I think he’s just continued to get better. He obviously is like a lot of freshmen, they look one way in December and by the time they get to March, it’s not just their skill set, but now you combine their skill set with some experience. And so now that’s what you’re doing. He’s got experience now. He knows what this is about now. He knows what road games are about. He knows what tournament play is about. But he’s just such an elite skill set as a ball handler, and his speed and quickness to get by people, you just don’t see very often. He’s like a lot of them that are elite like he is. As they get older, it seems like they just get better. He’s one of those guys that he looks a lot better now than what he did in December, and we had a awful lot of respect for him in December. He had a really good game against us in December.
Q. How much different is your team from that first matchup?
STEVE ALFORD: That’s a good question. You know, I think both of our teams are better. I think when you look at the December game, we had 18 turnovers. I’m sure Cal was probably disappointed with some things that his team did in that game, as well. I just think we’re better. They’ve won 13 straight. I think we’ve won 12 out of 13 or 13 out of 14, if I’m not mistaken. So you’ve got two teams that have really settled into their identity of being up-tempo, fast-paced, very skilled players that are playing the game at a fast pace and making decisions.
I’ve always said it, it’s one thing to play up-tempo, it’s another thing to play up-tempo and yet under control. We had nine turnovers in the first two rounds in the NCAA Tournament. That’s unheard of playing as fast as we want to play. And that’s going to be a big key in tomorrow’s game, as well.
I don’t think we’re going to feel very good if we’ve turned it over 18 times like we did in December. So I think we’ve gotten better at taking care of the ball. We’ve gotten better defensively, and I’m sure Cal thinks, and at least on film it looks that way to us, they’ve improved in a lot of areas, as well.
Very similar, though, in that both teams love transition. I think first game was 25-21 us in transition. That’s a lot of transition points. I think both coaches feel pretty good about their transition offense. They probably feel better about their transition defense than what we did in December.
Q. When you look at that match-up or when the bracket was released and you saw that you could play Kentucky in this round, what were your thoughts, and also looking forward you’ve got North Carolina here, too. What’s that say about the strength of this regional?
STEVE ALFORD: Yeah, I think more than — initially you only look at that first bracket, and because I’ve been doing this long enough, you start looking ahead at different brackets and what region you’re in and those type of things, you end up not even getting to that point. We really focused on that bracket. Now, obviously as coaches you start looking ahead, and okay, what region are we in? And we saw that we’re in the South, but if we were fortunate enough to get to the Regional round, there was a good opportunity we were going to be seeing Kentucky and the likes of North Carolina. And then obviously Butler has a tremendous culture.
So when you look at this region, I think it’s the only region that went chalk in 1, 2, 3, 4. Obviously there’s opinions and arguments, but we feel like this is obviously the toughest region, and you’re probably going to have to play not just good basketball, but you’re going to have to play very good basketball because all four of these teams are capable of advancing to the Final Four.
Q. You talked about De’Aaron Fox being a great player and a freshman. You’ve got one yourself that everybody is looking at. What is it like as a coach to coach a guy like that, and how do you guys kind of mind-meld to try to get what you want done on the court?
STEVE ALFORD: Well, I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve had a lot of special players, a lot of great players that I’ve been able to coach and be around. Zo is just one of those elite guys that, not only does he have a phenomenal skill set, but he said it after our game against Cincinnati, that he felt like he had a good feel. And I interrupted him in the press conference, and I said, no, no, no, you have a great feel. It’s one of those — I’ve had very few times in a 26-year career where I’ve actually taken a pause in games and said, what do you think? Because I trust him that much, that he has such an unbelievable feel to the game. It’s like, what do you want? What do you want to do defensively here? What do you want to do offensively?
So that trust factor from coach to your point guard is at a really high level, and he’s just — he’s a teammate — it goes all the way back to like a McDonald’s All-American game. You had guys, Josh Jackson, you had several guys after that that were interviewed saying, who wouldn’t way to play with that guy? And our guys top to bottom would tell you the same thing. He’s just a tremendous teammate to play with because he thinks teammate first. And there’s a lot of point guards out there that think teammate first, but they can’t think teammate first and then make that teammate look really good next. He can do that. His passes are on point. His passes are timely. And then his shots that he takes, he’s got a really good feel on when to go to his 3 ball and when to go to the rim, and he’s really improved defensively with his activity as the season has gone along.
They don’t come around very often, especially at 6’6”, long, athletic, running the point. I think he’s just a very special talent, and a lot of that goes not just because of his skill set but because of how smart he is. He’s a very smart basketball player.
Q. There aren’t a lot of regionals ever where North Carolina-Butler would be kind of the opening game of the night, but as someone who grew up in Indiana, played at Indiana, played Kentucky on a regular basis and now works where you work, something about the UCLA-Kentucky thing has kind of a special sizzle to it. Is that the way you see it, or are we seeing too much into it?
STEVE ALFORD: Well, the neat thing is you’ve got the two programs that have the most National Titles in UCLA and Kentucky. And I give Cal that credit. He reached out to me, it had to be three years ago when we got into the Champions Classic with Carolina, with Ohio State, Kentucky and ourselves. And we’ve kind of been doing a round-robin for three years, and that’ll start up again next year in three different cities than what we’ve had the previous three so we continue that. And when he called me about that, he also talked about a home-and-home, and obviously a lot of our talk as we started talking about that was what that meant for our fan bases. The Kentucky fan base to have a UCLA coming into Rupp, and for our fan base at UCLA in Westwood to have a team like Kentucky coming into Pauley Pavilion. So it just seemed like a great match-up of two blue bloods that have had tradition like no other, long before I was at UCLA or even Cal was at Kentucky.
I appreciate him reaching out and agreeing to do it because I think it’s been a really good series, if anything, for our fans, and now here we are in a another neutral sitting. We’ve done the neutral setting in Chicago, which I’d just as soon forget, and then we’ve done the home-and-home, and here we are in a another neutral sitting in the NCAA Tournament. We’ve done the home-and-home, we’ve done the preseason stuff, and now here it is in the postseason.
Q. When you think of Adebayo, Fox and Monk, what are the first things that come to mind?
STEVE ALFORD: Elite. They’re top of the food chain. We’ve got great respect. It obviously starts there. It doesn’t finish there because they’ve got other components to their team that make them very, very special. But with Bam you’ve got an elite center, great athletic ability that can beat you in a lot of ways. He’s averaging 14-14 in the tournament. You’ve got Fox, who can break down just about any defense that he’s gone against, and Monk is one of the most prolific scorers in our game today.
Those three are very special. They’re very elite. And those are three of the reasons — there’s many more reasons, but those are three very good reasons why they’re in the position they’re in.
Q. On top of the chance to make it to the Elite Eight, knowing that your son and Isaac are graduating and Lonzo and maybe others are leaving, how does that affect the importance of a game like tomorrow to you?
STEVE ALFORD: Yeah, it’s one of those things where you almost don’t want to think about it just because I’ve said it all along, I love this team. The character of this team has been phenomenal. The blending of the vets with the new guys has been a lot of fun to see that happen, all the way back from the summer months where we were getting ready. It’s just been a fun team, and we’ve just had so much fun not just in games and winning games but our practices, shoot-arounds like this, bus rides with Zo playing his music, trying to get Tommy Welsh’s one country music in, having conversations like that on the bus, TJ Leaf trying to get a date with Taylor Swift. It’s just been a fun team.
So when you’re a part of that, you don’t ever want it to end, so there’s an urgency, one, as coaches in preparation, but then as a team you want to relax them, too, so they don’t feel it. But we were here three years ago with a great team and Bryce was a freshman. We were talking about that today before our shoot-around. He’s the only one from that team because Isaac was ineligible to travel with us that year. Bryce and Isaac have been a part of a lot of things for us, and we appreciate everything that they’ve built, so you want them as seniors as well as this team to try to continue to play and do this as much as we can because we have so much fun.