LOS ANGELES – Steve Alford faces as big a test in Westwood as his UCLA players do.
He takes over from the fired Ben Howland, who left a team that lacked consistency and cohesion. It'll be up to Alford to foster an improved atmosphere that will make his players want to win and fans want to come out and see the Bruins.
Alford needs a strong start to win over a fan base that was less than impressed when he was hired in late March. The boosters had bigger names in mind to take over a program that has won a record 11 national championships.
"I would much rather be in a situation where there's pressure of success versus the pressure of not caring," he said. "To be at a place like UCLA, it should be about winning national championships."
Alford has one national title to his credit, having played on Indiana's 1987 championship team under coach Bob Knight.
No. 22 UCLA went 25-10 and won the Pac-12 regular season title before Howland was fired in late March.
This season, the Bruins were picked by the media to finish second behind Arizona in the league. Alford has just six returning players and a slew of newcomers.
"The newcomers and the returnees have to blend nicely," he said. "That's going to be a big part of our success or lack of. If those things mesh together, we have got the talent and we have got the pieces to have a very good year."
The Bruins open the season at home against Drexel on Nov. 8.
Here's five things to watch from UCLA this season:
ANDERSON & ADAMS: Swingman Kyle Anderson and guard Jordan Adams are two of UCLA's three returning starters. They'll help replace Shabazz Muhammad, whose 17.9-point average led the Bruins during his lone season before leaving for the NBA draft. Anderson can play nearly any position, although he'll handle the point more often since Larry Drew II graduated. "Some games I'm going to be asked to score the ball more or go inside and rebound more," Anderson said. "It's just a lot of roles that I would have to take on during the season, and I'm willing to." Adams was one of the Pac-12's top scorers last season, averaging 15.3 points. He's recovered from a broken right foot that ended his season early, and will be counted on to be a more consistent performer.
TONY & THE TWINS: Tony Parker returns for his sophomore season, and could prove to be a reliable big man after dropping some weight. He fell out of favor with Howland and will be looking to improve on the 6.3 minutes he averaged last season. Travis Wear, the Bruins' other returning starter, and his twin brother David are fifth-year seniors who will provide leadership.
NEWCOMERS: The 2013 class lacks the star power of Howland's last group of recruits, but some of the players could make an impact. Freshman guard Zach LaVine from Seattle averaged 28.5 points as a high school senior and could get time as the backup point guard. Freshman forward Wanaah Bail of Houston was granted eligibility by the NCAA after originally signing with Texas Tech. He has been limited while recovering from offseason knee surgery, but could be a key member of the frontcourt. Freshman guard Bryce Alford, the coach's son, finished his prep career as New Mexico's career single-season scoring leader and is a solid outside shooter. Freshman guard Isaac Hamilton, who signed with UTEP as a high school senior last year, is waiting to hear from the NCAA on whether he'll be eligible this season. Another Alford son, Kory, is also on the roster.
FAN REACTION: There was a distinct lack of buzz around the program last season despite the Bruins' return to a newly renovated Pauley Pavilion, with only a handful of games selling out. Athletic director Dan Guerrero, who hired Alford, will be watching to see if there's increased fan support and more people in the seats. "We can't really get off to a shaky start because fans and media are going to start obviously asking questions," David Wear said.
NCAA TOURNEY RESULTS: Championship expectations are always high at UCLA, and Howland satiated the demanding fan base with three straight trips to the Final Four from 2006-08. But with the program coming off a second-round NCAA loss to Minnesota last season on top of other early exits in recent years, Alford will need better results to win over his critics. His resume boasts just five NCAA tournament wins in 18 years at three different schools.