The biggest distraction at the NCAA Tournament’s South Region this weekend won’t be whatever outrageous comment Lonzo Ball’s father utters next or how loudly Kentucky Coach John Calipari will be booed in his return to a still-bitter Memphis.
Instead, the No. 1 distraction on the banks of the Mississippi River will involve the head coach of the UCLA Bruins and speculation he is about to become the head coach of the Indiana Hoosiers.
“I don’t have anything to say on that,” Steve Alford said last weekend in Sacramento where the Bruins picked up a pair of victories while their coach deflected queries about his future. “I’ve already addressed that matter and I’m not going to address it anymore.”
You can expect more of the same Thursday when the media gets another crack at Alford while previewing Friday night’s Sweet 16 showdown between No. 3 seed UCLA and No. 2 seed Kentucky at the FedEx Forum.
Since Indiana showed Tom Crean the door last week after nine seasons, however, the attention has centered on Alford, a homegrown legend in Hoosier lore whose pinpoint jumpers helped Bob Knight win his third IU title back in 1987.
After several previous missed opportunities — Mike Davis replaced Knight in 2000; Kelvin Sampson replaced Davis in 2006; Crean replaced Sampson in 2008 — is the time finally right for (a) IU to turn to its favorite son and (b) for Alford to accept?
Jordan Schultz of the Huffington Post claims that Alford has a 7-year, $31 million offer on the table from his alma mater. The timing seemed strange considering the school had just hired Parker Search Executive to help with the process. If true, and if Alford accepts, how might that go over with Indiana fans?
“Steve received a loud ovation when he appeared with the 1987 team a couple of years ago — and deserved it,” said Alex Bozich, who runs the Inside the Hall website covering Indiana basketball. “Fans love him because he played for Indiana’s last national championship team as well as the 1984 U.S. Olympic gold medal team — and stayed at home after winning Mr. Basketball in 1983. He’s got significant support from fans for that.”
Indiana hasn’t reached the Final Four since 2002. Still, it’s a top-shelf job. The state loves basketball. IU has tradition, facilities — Assembly Hall received a much-needed makeover before this season — and a passionate fan base. All would ignite with the right coach.
Is Alford that coach? He’s taken Missouri State, Iowa, New Mexico and UCLA to the NCAA Tournament but had been to just one Sweet 16 before his first year with the Bruins. He returned the money from a contract extension after going 15-17 last season, but thanks to freshman stars Ball and TJ Leaf, he has the Bruins at 31-4 this year.
So, as Randy Newman might ask, why leave L.A.? Two more stars from the Ball family, brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo, are on the way to Westwood. And the weather is beautiful in Southern California, although Alford must endure the recurring storm front from Lonzo’s father, LaVar, who most recently went insult-to-insult with Charles Barkley.
A friend who has talked to Alford says he thinks returning Indiana to national prominence appeals to the New Castle native. That doesn’t mean Alford is a lock to take the job or Indiana AD Fred Glass is certain to offer it. It just means Alford remains at or near the top of the candidates list.
Just don’t expect an acknowledgment from Alford. So far, he’s avoided public declarations either way, a high-wire act that will grow more difficult if the Bruins continue to advance. Ask Roy Williams, who in a similar Kansas/North Carolina situation in 2003 became so frustrated he uttered an on-air profanity when asked about it by CBS sideline reporter Bonnie Bernstein.
Alford hasn’t reached that boiling point, although in Sacramento, he firmly stated that if his heart is up for speculation, his brain is all Bruins.
“This is about what this group of guys are doing and that’s what my focus is,” he said.
Keeping that the focus in Memphis might be easier said than done.
Steve Alford Division I coaching record