UCLA announced Saturday it has hired Alford as its next coach, surprising news since the New Mexico coach hadn't been one of the names commonly linked to the Bruins' search in the wake of Ben Howland's firing last weekend.
The initial criticism of the hire has been that UCLA fired a coach who went to three Final Fours from 2006 to 2008 in favor of one who hasn't been to a Sweet 16 this century. It's an easy joke to make, but it ignores the transfers, chaos and mediocrity of the past five years that ultimately cost Howland his job.
The better question is whether Alford was the best choice UCLA could make as Howland's replacement. Here's a look at some of the pros and cons to his hire:
Pro: Once Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens expressed their disinterest in coming to UCLA, Alford was a very respectable second-tier choice. He has more West Coast recruiting ties than Gregg Marshall, he has enjoyed more recent success than Lorenzo Romar, his teams are more consistent and disciplined than Mark Gottfried's and he is not as big a risk as a potential NBA hire. In six seasons at New Mexico, Alford has instilled discipline and defense, winning at least a share of the Mountain West title four times. The ex-Indiana star also led Southwest Missouri State to the Sweet 16 in 1999 and made the NCAA tournament three times during an up-and-down eight-year tenure at Iowa.
Con: UCLA mismanaged the PR side of this hire by leaking it was targeting coaching stars like Stevens, Smart and Billy Donovan. Not only was it unlikely the Bruins were going to be able to pry coaches of that caliber from their current gigs, it inflated expectations among UCLA fans to the point that any hire the school made was going to feel like a letdown in the Los Angeles market. Alford can still win over UCLA fans by enjoying early success on the court and the recruiting trail, but that's going to make his job more difficult, especially if the Bruins endure some early struggles during the transition.
Pro: Alford showed at New Mexico that he can recruit Southern California and that he has an eye for underappreciated talent, two areas in which Howland struggled during the last five years of his UCLA tenure. He plucked Mountain West player of the year Kendall Williams from Rancho Cucamonga after UCLA informed the point guard it was pulling its scholarship offer. He also went to Riverside to land Tony Snell, an overlooked recruit who has since blossomed into a potential NBA prospect.
Con: Though Alford has enjoyed regular season success at the three Division I programs at which he has coached, victories in the NCAA tournament have proven more elusive. He is only 5-7 in the NCAA tournament and his lone Sweet 16 appearance wasn't even this century, credentials that are unusual for a new coach at a program with UCLA's rich history. Three times, Alford's teams have earned No. 3 seeds in the NCAA tournament but failed to advance past the opening weekend. His best Iowa team was upset by No. 14 seed Northwestern State in the opening round. The same fate befell his best New Mexico team, which swept the Mountain West regular season and conference tournament titles this season but lost to 14th-seeded Harvard in the round of 64.
Pro: It's obviously a long shot Alford can entice elite class of 2013 recruit Aaron Gordon to come to Westwood mere days before he is scheduled to announce his decision, but don't be surprised if he doesn't at least give it a shot. UCLA hadn't been in the picture for Gordon because of Howland, but Alford coached older brother Drew for three years after he left UCLA to come to New Mexico. Even if it's too late in the process for Alford to have a real chance at Gordon, he could bring his son, sweet-shooting Class of 2013 New Mexico signee Bryce Alford. His hire also comes early enough that he'll have time to re-recruit the three prospects who signed with UCLA under Howland and perhaps get involved with some unsigned Class of 2013 prospects. That's important considering UCLA's lack of depth on its current roster.
Con: Despite UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero's thinly veiled attempt to sell Alford as an "up-tempo" coach in the press release the school issued, Alford's style of play at New Mexico actually wasn't too different from Howland's during most of his time in Westwood. New Mexico ranked 239th in the nation this season in possessions per 40 minutes. Alford traditionally has been a defensive-oriented coach who encourages his teams to run when the opportunity is there but certainly doesn't push tempo. That's not necessarily bad, but it will make it harder to sell tickets in Los Angeles, especially if the team isn't elite.
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