BILL PLASCHKE

Steve Alford is unbeaten, untested and an unexpected delight

Bruins' players are having a ball for their new coach, who is respectful of UCLA traditions even if the fans haven't flocked to Pauley yet.

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 Steve Alford

Steve Alford will face his first big test as UCLA Coach when the Bruins tipoff against undefeated Missouri on Saturday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / November 12, 2013)

It's another eerie night in Pauley's Ghost Town, the shiny seats half-filled, the sparkling concourses mostly empty. There are moments during this UCLA basketball game when the place is so quiet, you can almost hear the banners flap.

Then, suddenly, a brief commotion on Nell & John Wooden Court causes the crowd to stand, cheer, and break into the evening's most rousing eight-clap.

Yeah, the football team just showed up.

"When you're in a situation like this, two things are paramount," Steve Alford says with a smile. ''Winning and entertaining.''

So that's what they do, on this evening and in every game so far this season, the Bruins fighting apathy by sprinting and soaring and bouncing around at a pace that would make Brett Hundley proud, nets rippling, kids smiling.

Barely a month into his first season as the UCLA basketball coach, Alford is dealing with bad starting times, a weak schedule, an infamous nearby freeway construction project that has made fan attendance a chore, and the growing perception that Wooden's monument is becoming a football school.

Yet earlier this week during an 89-76 victory over UC Santa Barbara, he followed a formula that has given the 8-0 Bruins their best start in seven years.

He stands back and lets them fly.

"I'm not going to take away our personality," he says. "I want them to run, jump and play."

Many will get their first look Saturday when the 18th-ranked Bruins travel to play at unbeaten Missouri in a nationally televised track meet.

Many of these UCLA kids are former coach Ben Howland's players, but they look nothing like the last 10 years of Howland's teams. They sprint constantly, pass quickly, shoot furiously. They played defense only occasionally, but it's a blast to watch them swoop, particularly revelation Zach LaVine, the best freshman in these parts since Kevin Love. They have scored at least 80 points in their last seven wins, the first such streak since the national championship team in 1995.

Says guard Kyle Anderson: "We have more freedom, you're not so tense with the ball, we're not being robots."

Adds guard Norman Powell: "It's a joy to play, and Coach is a joy to be around."

Steve Alford is a joy to be around? For those who know him only from his sour and defensive arrival here last spring, that is the biggest surprise of all.

His hiring was ripped because he came from a place — New Mexico — that had just lost an NCAA tournament game to Harvard, and because he had just signed a 10-year deal to stay there.

His background check was ripped because UCLA officials never spoke directly to him about his egregious statement in 2002 while he was coaching Iowa, when he publicly defended star guard Pierre Pierce from accusations of sexual assault just days before the player pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault in the case.

Alford was asked a pointed question about the statement during his opening UCLA news conference, offered a dismissive answer that was met with much public criticism, and later apologized for his original comments on the issue, calling them "inappropriate, insensitive and hurtful."

Today Alford hopes that fans will eventually judge him from the product he directs and the image he projects, saying, "Transitions are hard for everyone. Hopefully people will get to know me as a person, get to know my players, and realize that we're really fun to watch."

The Bruins really are fun. So too, it turns out, is their coach, a plain-talking Hoosier who pronounces that piece of road near his office as "Will-SHYRE."' During a recent interview in an office that is decorated like a young sports fan's bedroom, he comes off mostly as a guy who is still just honored to be here.

There is a Tom Lasorda autographed baseball on his shelf. There is a Pittsburgh Steelers helmet — his favorite team — on another shelf. There are memories hanging everywhere, but the most noticeable souvenir, sitting on the front of his desk, is a glittering glass pyramid of success.

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