The first team to qualify for the Sweet 16 is a double-digit seed that, to many, should never have been invited to the NCAA Tournament.
All that’s missing from this feel-good story is the hyphen or directional name of the school. It’s difficult to pass off UCLA, owner of a college-basketball-most 11 national championships, as a darling.
But good stories abound with the Bruins. There’s standout sophomore guard Bryce Alford, who turned in his second outstanding NCAA Tournament game, following his 27-point opener with a 22-point, five-assist effort on Saturday in a 92-75 victory over the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Alford is the son of head coach Steve Alford, a former Indiana All-America and NCAA Tournament champion, and has had to deal with the unfair comparisons and daddy’s-boy disapproval from fans.
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“Being able to play for him at a school like UCLA, you get a lot of heat,” Bryce Alford said. “It’s something that I’ve had to go through for my entire first two years. I know it’s not going to stop.”
Then there’s the career path of UCLA assistant coach David Grace, who chose the Air Force out of high school in Aberdeen, Md. He spent the next 16 years as fuel specialist and fuel accountant, spending time on bases in Turkey, Spain, Germany and Saudi Arabia, where he served three months during Desert Storm.
In his final four years in the Air Force, Grace earned a promotion to human-relations specialist, where he taught servicemen how get along in the work force.
Basketball had been a lifelong passion, and Grace wanted to become a coach. But two problems: little experience and no college degree.
He started working with teams while stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. His supervisor was coaching an AAU team of sixth-graders, and Grace started helping out. A year later Grace was coaching his own team, and after he was moved to Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Ariz., he connected with the region’s top AAU program.
Grace’s coaching ambition was swelling, but he needed college. He had received credits from community colleges associated with the Air Force and at a junior college in Arizona. But four-year schools from around the country also offered degree programs on the base.
One was Park University, and Grace enrolled, taking classes at lunch and at night around basketball practice. In 2003, Grace got his degree in management/human resources.
“I’ve never stepped foot in campus,” Grace said. “I should. I’ve seen pictures. It looks beautiful.”
The degree hangs in Grace’s office on the Westwood campus.
“I’m very proud of it,” Grace said.
Soon, Grace became a high school coach in Phoenix, winning a state championship in his second year, and he climbed the college ladder quickly: Sacramento State, San Francisco and five years at Oregon State, coaching for Craig Robinson, President Obama’s brother-in-law.
Grace once joked that he spent two decades working for the president, then he became a college basketball coach and got to know the current Commander in Chief on a first-name basis.
When Steve Alford moved from New Mexico to UCLA two years ago, he hired Grace. The Bruins have reached the Sweet 16 in both seasons, and on Saturday they were dominant against the Blazers.
During his final year at Oregon State, Grace was in Kansas City when the Beavers met Kansas at the Sprint Center. But the schedule didn’t allow a side trip to Parkville. Maybe his next trip through, and he can pick up some Park Pirates gear.