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Tank or Rank?

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Lobo fans seem divided over the performance of men’s basketball coach Steve Alford after four years on the job

Ah, the great debate. Lobo style.

While the nation clings to every twist and turn of one of the most critical political debates of our lifetime on Capitol Hill, leave it to sports fans in the Land of Enchantment to get into a tiff about something far more earth-shattering:

How is Steve Alford producing as Lobo men’s basketball coach?

And just like with John Boehner and Harry Reid, there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground between Alford’s fans and his detractors — which is apparent from the Journal’s daily Sports Speak Up! section.

And while recent Speak Up! contributors offer some interesting — sometimes even quite amusing — interpretations of Alford’s success, or lack thereof, thus far in Loboville, all of the facts aren’t always presented.

Very much like what’s going on in Washington.

So what is Alford’s debt ceiling at UNM right now, heading into his fifth year? Should that ceiling be increased before the public starts getting antsy?

Let’s look at the facts, at least those shown by results on the court.

Promising start

Alford came to UNM in the spring of 2007, taking over for fired Ritchie McKay. The latter got the Lobos to one NCAA Tournament in his five years, had an overall record of 82-69 and was 8-43 on the road.

But unlike McKay, who was basically left nothing after Fran Fraschilla’s firing in 2002, Alford took over a program that had some pretty good talent.

Alford went 24-9 that first season with mostly McKay’s players and got the Lobos to the NIT. Still, while they were mostly McKay’s guys, McKay failed to do anything with them, so that was a big plus for Alford.

Of course, Alford also was making about twice as much as McKay, getting a $1 million-plus salary (counting all perks) at UNM. So expectations were higher.

That first year wasn’t a fluke. Alford went 22-12 in his second season and has gone 98-39 in his four years at UNM, with one outright Mountain West Conference regular-season title and a three-way share of another. It’s the best winning percentage (.715) of any Lobo coach in the modern era.

Alford’s league record is 45-19 (.703), which is also the best in school history.

Under Alford, the Lobos produced their most wins ever in one season, going 30-5 in 2009-10. That season, they raced into the top 10 of the national polls and snared a No. 3 seed in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

But in the NCAAs, UNM struggled to beat 14th-seeded Montana in the opening round and was whacked by 11th-seeded Washington in the second.

That record-setting Lobo team was led by a guy, Darington Hobson, who didn’t originally plan to play for New Mexico. He committed to Pepperdine after attending various high schools when Ryan Miller was an assistant coach with the Waves. But Alford made the astute move to hire Miller on his original staff at UNM, and Hobson came along.

For one season.

Hobson first had to get eligible, so he headed to junior college prior to Loboland. Then he bolted after his junior year at UNM for the NBA (drafted in the second round by Milwaukee, but released without ever having played in the league).

Last season, 2010-11, was Alford’s first with all of his own players. It was also his worst as Lobos coach. New Mexico went 22-13 overall, played a non-conference schedule that didn’t include a single team that eventually made the NCAA Tournament, and finished 8-8 in the Mountain West, winning its last three games to get to .500. The Lobos lost in the second round of the NIT at Alabama.

By winning 20 games, Alford received a $10,000 bonus as part of his contract — a contract athletic director Paul Krebs extended in 2010 through 2020 and is worth well more than $1 million per year.

Frustrating finishes

The Alford debate really heats up when it comes to his postseason record.

He has taken the Lobos to four postseason tournaments in his four years, but three of those trips have been to the NIT — three letters that read like a four-letter word to Lobo fans, and apparently to past administrators as well. Being NIT fixtures, after all, didn’t prevent New Mexico from firing previous coaches Fraschilla (three NITs in three years) and Gary Colson (five of eight seasons, including his final five).

Alford has won one NCAA Tournament game at New Mexico. He won one NCAA Tournament game in his eight seasons at Iowa, which led to Iowa basically chasing him from Iowa City to Albuquerque.

But Iowa shouldn’t matter in this debate. Just UNM. And counting all postseason games under Alford, the Lobos are 5-8: 1-1 in the NCAA Tournament, 2-3 in the NIT and 2-4 in the MWC tournament.

New Mexico has yet to make the title game of the Mountain West tournament under Alford, despite being seeded higher than every opponent it faced during his first three years. Against the six teams the Lobos have played in the MWC tournament under Alford, they went 10-2 against those clubs in the regular season but 2-4 against them in the tournament. That’s the worst conference tournament record of any Lobos coach in history.

Other factors

Granted there are numerous other topics than can be debated when evaluating a coach — recruiting, transfers, academic success, scheduling, ethics, off-the-court issues etc. — but at least now you have the facts as far as the scoreboard.

So, let the great debate continue — which it probably will until that elusive Sweet 16 appearance is achieved.

Meanwhile, watch CNN this weekend to see if anything gets accomplished in the real world.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal