Despite Steve Alford's solid track record, there is still some cause for concern in Westwood. (Steve Conner/Icon SMI)
Is it possible to have made the right choice in relieving a head coach of his duties, made a strong hire to replace him, and still have made a mistake?
Ben Howland's reign at UCLA, for a variety of reasons, had run its course. Despite this season's Pac-12 regular-season title, the program had been slipping in the wrong direction since Howland brought the last of his three consecutive Final Four teams to San Antonio in 2008. His adversarial relationship with the local prep and AAU scene is well documented, and you can't run UCLA in the long term if you can't recruit Los Angeles. It won't work.
After the Bruins predictably were turned down or not entertained by the likes of Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens, Dan Guerrero found himself in a position many ADs are in these days: Trying to salvage a coaching search. In hiring Steve Alford, who did a terrific job elevating New Mexico to a national level, he found a quality coach who is familiar with the region and actually had become a fallback spot for players who were squeezed out by or wanted to leave Howland's program.
Alford is a legendary player and a good coach with a solid track record of success. Iowa certainly hasn't done any better than when he was in charge and won a couple Big Ten tournaments, and New Mexico has earned a 3-seed in the NCAA tournament in two of the past four seasons while the Lobos regularly claimed league titles in a conference where UNLV, San Diego State and, before they departed, BYU were the fancier names.
There's still reason for concern, though, and ample reason to see through Guerrero's press statement bloviating. Alford is, in a lot of ways, a poor man's version of the coach Guerrero just fired. He has a significant ego. He can be prickly with the media. He hasn't handled increasing expectations all that well, with this past week's bizarrely defensive press conference as a recent prime example.
And despite what Guerrero claimed, Alford does not bring an up-tempo style to Westwood. In his last 11 seasons, at Iowa and New Mexico (as far back as KenPom.com goes), Alford's teams ranked just once in the nation's top 100 in adjusted tempo. That was at Iowa in 2004. Only one of his six New Mexico teams was even in the top 150. Three of his six New Mexico teams were in the top 25 in terms of defensive efficiency. Only one of his teams was on offense. Maybe he'll change his approach when he compiles more "national" talent at UCLA, but there's a pretty clear footprint established, and "up-tempo" is not it. Unless Alford wins very big very quickly -- and UCLA next season, at least, looks like a pretty significant rebuild -- it's hard to see how the highly demanding fanbase will see this as an upgrade.
Alford's move, just a week and a half after he signed a massive 10-year deal at New Mexico and then lost to 14-seed Harvard in the NCAA tournament's round of 64, also creates a really inviting opening in Albuquerque, as well. The Lobos are built to win right now, with a ton of talent returning and a league where several teams will be dropping from this season's standards. The Lobos also have the best fanbase in the league, and the reboot from Alford and the perception of NCAA tournament underachievement, might re-energize them.
You'd imagine that assistant coach Craig Neal will get a long look, and maybe he'd be able to snag his son from Saint Mary
's in the process. But the Lobos should at least entertain a national search. It's a good enough program in a good enough league to attract some significant interest, and Alford's new deal that now lies in shreds somewhere shows they're willing to pay. Would they be bold enough to call Howland? Kendall Williams
may not like it very much, and Howland's ego may not, either, but if a coachswap were somehow completed, it would be hard to argue New Mexico didn't get the better end of the deal.