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Pac-12 Confidential

Bud Withers offers an inside look at the Pac-12 Conference and the national college scene.

April 1, 2013 at 12:21 PM

With Alford hire, the mystery that is UCLA hoops deepens . . .

The new basketball coach at UCLA, Steve Alford, has been at it for about two decades now, and it’s probably fair to say the best team he has coached was at Iowa in 2005-06, when the Hawkeyes went 25-9, 11-5 in the Big Ten.

That season, Iowa ranked No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive ratings, and No. 223 in tempo.

That’s among the things that make the Bruins’ choice of Alford — for the past six years coach at New Mexico — a bit mystifying. When he announced the hire, AD Dan Guerrero talked about the “uptempo” style Alford favors, almost as if he were officially demanding how Alford needs to operate now.

Only once in the past 10 years has an Alford team, at Iowa or New Mexico, ranked in Pomeroy’s top 100 in tempo. That was in 2004, when his Iowa team was No. 69.

If you’re sensing this could merely be Ben Howland repackaged, you’re forgiven.

There’s little doubt Alford can coach. He had some success at Southwest Missouri (now Missouri State), he had some at Iowa, and he had some at New Mexico. It was considerable in Albuquerque; he never won fewer than 22 games, and he had a 30-win season in 2010, 29 this year and 28 a year ago.

But if you judge success within the NCAA-tournament framework, Alford has been less than scintillating. He had a surprise Sweet 16 appearance with Southwest Missouri in 1999 (when, famously, his team won a first-round game against Dick Bennett-coached Wisconsin by the horrific score of 43-32; hope you played the “under”). But since then, it’s been short of boffo. His six combined NCAA-tournament teams at Iowa and New Mexico won a grand total of three games.

That ’06 Iowa team, a No. 3 seed, lost to Northwestern State on a first-round buzzer-beater. His 2010 New Mexico team was thrashed, as a No. 3 seed, by Washington, 82-64, in the second round, and his latest edition of the Lobos was upended in Salt Lake City by Harvard, for the Crimson’s first victory in NCAA-tournament history. That New Mexico team was also a No. 3 seed (3 seeds are the kiss of death for Alford) but Harvard dictated pace and played fearlessly all night (I was in attendance), led virtually the entire game and ended a grand Lobo season that saw them win the regular season and Mountain West tournament.

It was in Salt Lake that somebody joked, “This is why you don’t give a coach a new contract before the tournament begins.” Seems that New Mexico, on the eve of the start of the tournament, announced a new 10-year deal for Alford, who was quoted in the school’s press release:

“I have said from our first game in The Pit that this was a special place and that it was a tremendous honor to be the head basketball coach at the University of New Mexico. Now six years in, we have built a top 25 program on and off the court. There is no other place I would rather coach than at UNM . . .

“I’m very appreciative of the administration and Board of Regents for allowing me to have the opportunity to continue to lead UNM basketball. I’m very excited about what we have accomplished in our first six years, and I look forward to building on those successes in the future.”

The statement included a “term sheet” that was specific in its language, including stipulations of his buyout: “Should Coach Alford leave the employment of UNM, he will be required to pay the following amount:

“Prior to April 1, 2015, $1,000,000 . . . ”

Hmm. Guess they should have applied more urgency to it, as in: “Should Coach Alford leave the employment of UNM within, like, 10 days . . . ”  That’s how long it was before Alford high-tailed it to UCLA.

Geographically, it somehow seems like an odd fit as well. But maybe that’s because Alford was a small-town Indiana guy, a hero there led his team to the 1987 national title and who was always assumed to be headed back someday to coach the Hoosiers. Instead, he landed at another blueblood program 2,000 miles away.

He’ll be able to recruit more easily there, but the demands, both obvious and unspoken, will be mammoth. That’s the attraction of UCLA, and the strings attached. It’s the place that wants to return to yesteryear but never seems quite sure how to do it.

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