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New worries raise new questions for UCLA basketball this season

Ben Bolch, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Basketball

Steve Alford appeared at ease last week as he stood on the edge of the Pauley Pavilion court, his trim physique and thick mop of gelled hair almost as reminiscent of the sweet-shooting Indiana schoolboy as a 52-year-old nearly three decades into his coaching career.

The moment was a throwback to a much simpler time.

In a matter of days, Alford's biggest worry would shift from shepherding freshman-laden UCLA through its early schedule to the jarring possibility of returning from a season-opening trip to China with three players staying behind to deal with the fallout from allegedly shoplifting designer sunglasses.

The biggest preseason scandal to rock the Bruins' program since coach Jim Harrick was fired in 1996 over lying about a recruiting dinner has darkened more than the futures of LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, the freshmen allegedly involved in the theft near their team hotel in Hangzhou, China.

An extended absence of the three would greatly hinder UCLA's depth and ability to apply the kind of all-out defensive pressure that the Bruins hoped would make this team more complete than the one that ended last season, when it was overrun by Kentucky in an NCAA tournament regional semifinal.

Ball, Riley and Hill will miss the No. 21 Bruins' opener against Georgia Tech on Friday night in Shanghai, having remained at a hotel in Hangzhou while waiting for legal proceedings to unfold.

Some UCLA fans have gone on message boards to demand harsh penalties, including expulsion from school, if the allegations against the players are proven to be true. Others have used the episode to further question the coach who has repeatedly taken his team to what's known among some fans as the "Steve 16," a derisive twist on reaching a Sweet 16 that goes back to Steve Lavin's years coaching the Bruins.

It's become a familiar destination once more under Alford. His first four seasons at UCLA, those fans would tell you, have gone Steve 16, Steve 16, Losing Record, Steve 16.

Asked whether he felt any pressure to go further, the ninth coach to succeed John Wooden did not sound like someone haunted by the banners hanging from the rafters above his home court.

"There's only six programs in the country that have done what we've done," Alford said last week, referring to having advanced to three regional semifinals in four years. "Did we have one bad year? Yeah. But we've had three really good years.

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