The net, a celebratory staple that’s dangled conspicuously from Steve Alford’s neck the last few seasons, is starting to look more like an albatross for New Mexico’s most revered and recognizable sports figure.
Alford, now 5-7 in the NCAA tournament, is quickly developing a reputation at New Mexico as a great regular-season coach whose teams flame out regularly in the NCAA tournament. This year, Alford’s third-seeded Lobos went from the national punch bowl, with everyone drinking their Kool-Aid, to the national punch line after falling spectacularly to No. 14 seed Harvard.
Worse, Harvard’s Tommy Amaker put a clown suit on Alford by beating the Lobos at their own game. UNM, buoyed all year by its stingy defense, should have licked its proverbial chops when Amaker opted for stall ball. The Crimson, efficiently milking clock, turned the contest into a meat-grinding war of attrition.
Fans looking for an act of contrition from Alford at Wednesday’s end-of-season news conference were sorely disappointed. Alford, alternating between amused and perturbed, doubled-down on the ignominy by flinging barbs far and wide during several testy exchanges with reporters.
He scoffed, bemoaned and danced his way through questions about the Lobos’ tournament meltdown, the ramifications of the Mountain West Conference’s collective 2-5 tournament record and whether news of his new contract distracted his team the most crucial week of the season.
Too often, Alford’s 31-minute, question-and-answer session devolved into self-congratulations and sarcasm.
Asked what Lobos fans should expect next year from a team returning four, and potentially five of its starters, if Tony Snell’s NBA water-testing doesn’t pan out, Alford said: “What do you want me to promise the national championship?”
No, Steve, maybe just a trip out of the second round.
Alford talked about UNM’s three championships and invented accolades and trophies, the epitome of Little League.
“We never lost two games in a row,” he said. “How many teams did that?”
“Jim Rome? We’re gonna go to Jim Rome,” Alford said. “Wall Street Journal? So Wall Street Journal’s heavy into sports?
“There’s no way, if you’ve got any basketball intellect at all, would you say we’ve had a bad season.”
Then King Alford did the unthinkable. He asked Lobo-dom to bow down, kiss the MWC championship rings and settle for blue collar rather than blue blood.
“UNM is not Duke. UNM is not Indiana or [North] Carolina or UCLA,” Alford said, almost apologizing for the Lobos. “That’s not who we are yet. If we develop into that, I’ll be the first to jump through hula hoops in great praise. But who we are is pretty doggone good.”
Yes, after moribund years under Fran Fraschilla and Ritchie McKay, Alford raised the team’s national profile. The Lobos, never feast or famine, have won more than 20 games every year since his arrival in 2007.
Problem is, the Lobos are consistently good and simultaneously not good enough.
Three years ago, the Darington Hobson-led Lobos barely escaped Montana in the first round only to get outhustled and outmuscled in a glaring round-of-32 setback to Washington. Louisville dispatched UNM last year, 59-56.
In fairness, the Lobos haven’t made a Sweet 16 in the modern format, but it’s not delusional to expect incremental progress. Instead the Lobos find themselves on a plateau, albeit an extremely high one.
“We haven’t had any valleys,” Alford said. “We haven’t had any dips.”
Alford, though, revealed himself as a poor man’s Bobby Knight with far less entertaining bluster and NCAA tournament luster.
His smoke-and-mirrors diversion tactics reeked of self-serving entitlement. Here was a coach, with a subpar NCAA tournament record, growing irritated, and combative, because he had to explain why, despite so many signs to the contrary, the Lobos are perpetually on the cusp of the Sweet 16.
“It’s not so much a Sweet 16 thing,” Alford said. “I haven’t lived here for 40, 50 years. When we all of a sudden start putting all our laurels on, ‘Oh, we have to get to the Sweet 16. We have to get the Elite Eight. We have to get to the Final Four.’ What is that?”
Some call that natural progression. Alford wants “50 Shades of Grey” in a black-and-white college basketball world. Like it or not, the march to March is irrelevant in March. Put another way, it doesn’t matter how many wins Alford and Co. stockpile during the season if the music cuts out early in the Big Dance.
“It doesn’t devalue us as a staff,” Alford said. “It doesn’t devalue us as a program. If that’s the case, we should just bag the first four months [of the season]. It’s the body of work that gets you into the NCAA tournament.”
Suffice it to say, the Lobos have a Maxim model’s body. And Dick Vitale’s face.
Alford, summing up UNM’s season, said: “NCAA, disappointment. Season, phenomenal.” Ditto for Alford.
Keep wearing that net, coach.
Avilucea is a former staff writer for the Santa Fe New Mexican and a freelance journalist based in Albuquerque, N.M.