I know by posting this I’m pouring a puddle of gasoline on the floor and handing Iowa fans some matches.
Not every match has to be struck, but that’s up to you. I just think there’s nothing wrong with saying this: Steve Alford has become a really successful and effective college basketball coach.
His New Mexico Lobos handled top-seeded, 21st-ranked San Diego State, 68-59, Saturday in Las Vegas to win the Mountain West Conference tournament. UNM tied SDSU for the MWC regular-season title. New Mexico is 27-6 overall.
Go 27-6 anywhere in college basketball, and you’ve done something. Go 125-45 in five years with a conference record of 55-23 and get three regular-season league-titles and now a tourney championship? You’ve done something.
I know a considerable percentage of Iowa fans don’t look kindly upon Alford after his 8-year tenure at Iowa, which produced a Big Ten record of 61-67, just three first-division finishes in the league, and only one NCAA tournament win and three NCAA appearances. I was here for it, folks. That, and the handling of the Pierre Pierce situation, didn’t wow me, either.
Had Alford gone from Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State) to do what he has done at New Mexico, he would be one of the hottest commodities in coaching. In fact, he’d probably have left Albuquerque a year or two ago for a big-time job.
Whether he leaves UNM after this season or sometime in the future for so-called greener pastures, I have no idea. Maybe he thinks it’s good to be at a place that loves him.
Iowa won the Big Ten tournament and a first-round NCAA game in Alford’s second season at Iowa. Had you told any Hawkeye fan that their favorite basketball program wasn’t in for a long stretch of prosperity, you would have branded a heretic and a lunatic.
Fran McCaffery just finished his second season at Iowa. He came to Iowa with far more head coaching experience than Alford when Alford arrived here, and I believe along with the majority of Iowa fans that McCaffery will bring prosperity to Hawkeye hoops.
But there are no rock-solid guarantees, are there?
A friend is fond of reminding me Lute Olson’s fourth Iowa club went 12-15 (and 5-13 in the Big Ten). Some good things take time, especially if done the right way. Olson’s last five Hawkeye squads all won 20 games or more, all went to the NCAAs when the tourney took 64 or 68 teams, and went to one Final Four and a second Sweet 16.
This doesn’t really apply to Alford, but McCaffery’s program may not necessarily bust down all the walls in Year 3. But my guess is it will knock down some of those walls, like it did this season in posting an overall winning record and winning a game in the Big Ten tourney.
McCaffery took teams at Lehigh, UNC-Greensboro and Siena to a total of five NCAA tourneys, so he obviously knows how to get there. But as Alford can tell you, you’re swimming with piranhas in the Big Ten. If you don’t believe it, watch Sunday afternoon’s Michigan State-Ohio State game for the Big Ten tourney title. They have players.
So … going from 4-14 in the Big Ten last year to 8-10 doesn’t necessarily translate to 12-6 next year. But it does mean envisioning a 12-6 conference mark some season soon is no longer a fantasy.