Bryce Alford's play proves he belongs

ByBrian Bennett ESPN logo
Thursday, April 2, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Bryce Alford grew up wanting to be like Bryce Drew.

Even though Alford was only 3 years old when Valparaiso's Drew hit his famous game-winning shot to beat Ole Miss in the 1998 NCAA tournament, he loved re-enacting that play. When he was 8, Valparaiso came to Iowa City for an NIT game, and Alford did his impersonation -- complete with the slide-on-the-floor celebration -- to amuse the team during its shootaround.

"I thought it was cool, because he made that shot and had the same name as me," Alford said. "So it's kind of cool to have my own moment."

Alford created his own March magic last weekend while helping 11th-seeded UCLA to a surprise Sweet 16 appearance. Like Drew, he did it while playing for his father. And he changed the conversation about his entire career in the process.

The sophomore guard scored 49 points in two games, setting a school tournament record for most 3-pointers made in a game with nine against SMU. His last 3 against the Mustangs counted as the game winner when SMU'sYanick Moreirawas called for goaltending.

What Alford did in the round of 32 game against UAB might have been even more impressive. The Blazers extended their defense to keep Alford from burning them from deep, so he instead focused on distributing the ball and finding other ways to score in a 22-point, five-assist performance as UCLA won 92-75.

"He's really leading the team," UCLA senior Norman Powell said. "He didn't shoot the 3-ball the way he was shooting it the last game, but he made great passes, great drop-offs in the paint when he was driving and sucking the defense up. That's what we need out of him."

Until this past week, Alford was best known for being coach Steve Alford's son -- and as a lightning rod for Bruins fans.

Many weren't sure he was qualified to play in Westwood after he came with his dad from New Mexico. Bryce had his freshman struggles last season, and criticism only increased when classmate Zach LaVine jumped to the NBA, reportedly unhappy that the coach's son was taking his minutes at point guard. Bryce went into a shooting funk early this season, going 5-for-39 during one three-game stretch as UCLA appeared to slip far away from tournament consideration.

Now who's complaining? In his past five games, Bryce has gone 21-for-32 from 3-point range (a sizzling 65.6 percent). The Bruins have used him as an off-the-ball option, running him through a dizzying array of screens for open looks like they did against SMU, and as more of a pure point guard like he was versus UAB. He has shown he can do both while turning down the noise from his skeptics.

"It's something that as a coach's kid, you always deal with," Bryce's older brother, Kory, said of the criticism. "And being a point guard at UCLA, it's times 50.

"But he's fought through it, and I'm super happy that the last two games were big for him. He's a confident player already, so he doesn't really need it. But I think for some people, it shows a lot."

Bryce said he's "under the microscope 100 percent of the time," both because of his last name and the position he plays for one of the sport's marquee brand names. There was a time in high school when he considered going somewhere else, where the coach's son label wouldn't apply so much. But he grew up hanging around his dad's practices and games at Missouri State, Iowa and New Mexico and always wanted to play for his father. He watched as Kory walked on for New Mexico and "told me how great it was."

"I think that definitely made it easier for him," said Kory, who's now a junior at UCLA. "Our dad does a great job of keeping the coach/player and father/son relationships different. But it's even harder for Bryce because he's the starting point guard."

Basketball and bloodlines mix effortlessly throughout the Alford family. Steve Alford played for his dad, Sam, in high school in Indiana and later put Sam on his staffs at Missouri State and Iowa.

At UCLA, Steve says he has assistant coach Ed Schilling work most closely with Bryce to form a sort of firewall. Schilling is also the son of a coach.

"[Schilling is] somebody who understands that dynamic," Steve Alford said. "But it's not me doing it all the time because, obviously, I've got to be concerned with the whole group."

There's only so much distance anyone can put between a father and son on the same bench, however, and Bryce will always draw comparisons with his father. Right now, he's comparing pretty favorably.

Bryce is already playing in his second Sweet 16. Steve's Indiana teams advanced past the first weekend only once in his first three years. Steve had the benefit of the 3-point line only during his senior season, when he led the Hoosiers to the 1987 national title, but the most 3s he ever made in a game was eight. Bryce has him beat there, if perhaps on a technicality.

"The dad in me says, 'You made eight, son, because the ninth one never did go in the basket,'" Steve said. "The coach in me says, 'I'll give you credit, because without that ninth one, we wouldn't have advanced.' So coach says you've got nine, but when I put my dad hat on, it's still 8 to 8."

Steve said last week that Bryce is a better player than he was (the edge in assists probably goes to the son; UCLA forward Tony Parker joked Saturday that "Coach Alford didn't pass much."). Bryce, who has watched the grainy tapes of his dad swishing nylons throughout the 1980s, disagrees because Pops was "one of the best college basketball players of all time."

Let's go to Kory Alford for the tiebreaker.

"I'd still go with my dad," he said. "Any time you challenge him in something that doesn't involve running, he's going to win. We used to go against him at the free throw line and other shooting competitions, but that got old because he just doesn't miss and still doesn't miss."

Watching Bryce curl around a screen, rise up and snap off a jump shot with that quick release, you could almost rub your eyes and believe you were seeing Steve do the same thing nearly 30 years ago (albeit in much shorter shorts). Maybe Bryce will stay scorching hot from the outside and drag these Bruins on a miracle run back to the Final Four, poetically enough located this year in the state of Indiana.

But even if it ends here, Bryce Alford no longer has to impersonate Bryce Drew. Or even his more famous father.

"I'm not so much trying to live up to him or trying to be as good as he is," Bryce said of his dad. "I'm just trying to be my own player and make a name for myself."

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