UCLA Basketball: Alford's History of Tournament Failure

Stephen Dunn

Bumped. - BN Eds.

A debate about Steve Alford's ability to navigate the Pac-12 conference tournament erupted in the comments following DCBruins' News Wrap Up of WSU's Rout of UCLA. The debate centered on the proposition that Alford has "a habit of choking in basketball tournaments." From my perspective, the somewhat subjective judgment of what constitutes "choking" is more problematic and less enlightening than examining the entirety of Alford's tournament history to see if there's evidence of success.

Before I delve into Alford's tournament statistics, let me make a few observations that should help put into context what I mean when I use the words "success" and "failure" with respect to Division 1 and Pac-12 coaching.

  1. The majority of Division 1 coaches have career losing records against Division 1 opponents. Obviously, every game played produces one win and one loss, so it may seem counterintuitive that there are more career losers than career winners. The reason for this is that winning Division 1 coaches generally continue to coach in Division 1, while losing Division 1 coaches move on to other things..
  2. A corollary to my first point is that the majority of Division 1 coaches with 10 years or more experience in Division 1 coaching have winning records.
  3. For reasons that follow from points 1 and 2, the majority of Division 1 coaches at the so-called power conferences have winning records. This is currently true in the Pac-12 too, a conference filled with many truly undistinguished coaches--only Scotty's favorite coach, Craig Robinson, has a sub-0.500 career record in Division 1, and he's just 7 games under 0.500 (124-131).

Therefore, in the context of the above observations, coaches like Stanford's Johnny Dawkins and former UCLA coach Steve Lavin can be classified as "bad" coaches by Pac-12 standards in spite of career winning records and sporadic or partial tournament "success."

In a previous post I compared the coaching careers of Steve Lavin and Steve Alford, and the inescapable conclusion from that analysis is that Lavin has had more career coaching success than Alford, and particularly so with respect to NCAA tournament appearances and wins. The fact that Alford's career record compares unfavorably to Steve Lavin's should immediately raise a red flag for the "let's give Alford a chance" crowd, but apparently they are blessed with boundless optimism.

In this analysis I've taken a broad look at Steve Alford's tournament performances, including postseason play in conference tournaments as well as the NCAA and NIT. Before summarizing Alford's tournament results, I want to highlight an important distinction between conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament because it shapes the way I evaluate success and failure in each instance.

The results in conference tournaments are only relevant in so far as they allow a team to qualify for further postseason play. Good coaches and good basketball programs don't brag about second or third place finishes in conference tournaments. Potential recruits who hear a coach wax poetic about being runner-up in a conference tournament will rightly conclude that the coach is a loser.

On the other hand, extent of progress in the NCAA tournament is widely recognized as a measure of success. The NCAA tournament is a measuring stick for college basketball programs and coaches. In some cases, a good run in the NCAA tournament can help a mediocre or poor coach hold his job for another year or more; similarly, it can propel an inexperienced coach from a lightly-regarded conference to a head coaching position at Southern Cal.

With that perspective in mind, here's a statistical summary of Steve Alford's tournament performances followed by a letter grade.

Conference Tournament Record
  • 18 conference tournaments
  • 4 conference tournament titles (22.2% of conference tournament appearances)
  • 4 times seeded #1
  • 65.9% Conference Tournament winning percentage
  • 5 first round losses (27.8% of conference tournament appearances)
  • 10 exits after the first or second round (55.6% of conference tournament appearances)

Alford's conference tournament record represents mediocrity. His winning percentage in conference tournament games mirrors his career winning percentage. He's won conference tournament titles with two first place teams, a second place team and a fifth place team. He's notably lost twice with first place teams, twice with second place teams, twice with third place teams, and thrice with fourth place teams. While this may not constitute "a habit of choking," it's certainly very unimpressive. Grade: C.

NIT Record
  • 7 NIT appearances
  • 0 NIT championships
  • 36.4% NIT winning percentage
  • 4 first round losses (57.1% of NIT appearances)
  • 6 exits after the first or second round (85.7% of NIT appearances)

I'm not a fan of the NIT. Nevertheless, if a program is invited and chooses to participate in the NIT, it presumably does so with the objective of winning. And in that regard, Alford's NIT record is dreadful. Losing in the first round of a tournament for losers is a major embarrassment. Grade: F.

NCAA Tournament Record
  • 7 NCAA tournament appearances
  • 0 NCAA tournament championships
  • 0 NCAA tournament Final Fours
  • 1 Sweet Sixteen appearance (1999)
  • 41.7% NCAA tournament winning percentage
  • 3 first game losses (42.9% of NCAA tournament appearances)

Aside from a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 1999, Steve Alford's tournament record this century is a shockingly poor 3-6 (33.3%). There is nothing in his NCAA record to suggest that he's capable of leading a team to a Final Four appearance. For a Division 1 coach with 18+ years of experience, that's a sign of mediocrity at best. Grade: D.


Steve Alford's tournament record does not inspire confidence. He may not have a habit of choking, but he clearly has a habit of failure. Composite Grade: D.

In my opinion, this constitutes yet another reason why Alford ranks among the worst coaches in the Pac-12, which I've already noted is not a distinguished group. Is he as bad as Johnny Dawkins? No, probably not. So with whom does he best compare? The answer is... Lorenzo Romar.

Romar 17+ 347 231 0.600 6.02 4 25.0% 62.5% 7 3 41.2% 53.3% 50.0%
Alford 18+ 408 214 0.656 5.81 4 22.2% 65.9% 7 1 38.9% 41.7% 36.4%

(SOS = composite Strength Of Schedule, CTC = Conference Tournament Championships, CTC% percent of seasons winning the Conference Tournament, CTW% = Conference Tournament Winning percentage, NTA = NCAA Tournament Appearances, SS = Sweet Sixteens, NTA% = percent of seasons with an NCAA Tournament Appearance, NTW% = NCAA Tournament Winning percentage, NITW% = NIT Winning percentage)

As you can see from the table, Romar's tournament record is substantially better than Alford's. The fact that Steve Alford's career record compares unfavorably with the career record of a below-average Pac-12 coach (Romar) and compares unfavorably with the career record of UCLA reject Steve Lavin says it all: Alford is not a quality coach, and on that basis alone, even without considering what should be disqualifying character issues, Alford is not qualified to lead an elite collegiate basketball program.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of BruinsNation's (BN) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of BN's editors.

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