Steve Alford isn’t ideal for UCLA, but he’s a pretty good hire nonetheless

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Seemingly out of no where on Saturday afternoon, news broke that UCLA had hired a head coach: Steve Alford of New Mexico, who had recently signed a 10-year contract extension with the Lobos.

The reason it was so sudden? Well, Alford’s new contract doesn’t kick in until Monday, which means that his buyout would be $1 million instead the less-than $200,000 that his current contract’s buyout will cost. This had to happen quickly, especially since UCLA will be paying the buyout, according to CBSSports.com. Alford’s deal is seven years and worth $2.6 million annually.

UCLA’s job had been vacant for a little more than a week, since Ben Howland bowed out to Tubby Smith and Minnesota in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, and the Bruins had already been turned down by both Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens.

A splashy hire was out of the question.

But that certainly doesn’t mean that Alford is a bad hire.

Here’s the thing: when people think about Alford, they are going to think about regular season success that doesn’t translate into postseason success. They’ll bring up the 5-7 record in the NCAA tournament. They’ll mention the fact that losing to No. 14 seed Harvard in the opening round this season wasn’t the first time that he’s failed to win a game in the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed; in 2006, his Iowa Hawkeyes got knocked off by Northwestern State.

Alford hasn’t been to a Sweet 16 this century. Three jobs ago, in 1999, he led Southwest Missouri State to the second weekend, which got him hired by Iowa. That was when Steve Lavin was still the head coach at UCLA. Lavin made it to five straight Sweet 16, and he was fired. His successor, Ben Howland, got to three straight Final Fours and he was fired. Alford has won three tournament games since we found out Y2K wasn’t actually something we should be concerned about.

And now think about this: Alford is just as cantankerous and arrogant as Howland. He’s not anymore media friendly. His coaching style is almost the same — Alford’s teams are known for their grind-it-out, physical defensive style. They’re not exactly showtime; he’s not Roy Williams.

In other words, UCLA basically just re-hired Ben Howland, only this time they got a guy that’s a little bit smaller with a full head of hair but not quite as much coaching acumen.

And this is supposed to be the hire than turns around the program?

It may not be.

But Alford’s a better fit at UCLA than Howland, at least at this point in time, because he can get players from Southern California from AAU and high school programs that Howland has already ticked off. Look at the guys on his roster the last couple of years: Kendall Williams, Tony Snell, Demetrius Walker, Drew Gordon. Those are all kids from SoCal* that, for whatever reason, couldn’t make the cut at UCLA. Would he be able to keep guys like Allen Crabbe from earning Pac-12 Player of the Year awards at other schools? Would he be able to cut off the pipelines that Colorado and Arizona have established in California?

*(UPDATE: Drew Gordon is actually from San Jose, CA, which qualifies as Northern California.)

Who knows, but he’ll have a better shot at doing so than Howland did.

And while Alford’s tournament success has been lacking, that shouldn’t overshadow what he’s been able to do in the regular season at his last two stops. Iowa isn’t exactly a powerhouse basketball program. They haven’t been to the NCAA tournament in the six seasons since Alford left. They made it three times in the six seasons before he arrived and they’ve been to one Sweet 16 since 1988. He’s won at least a share of the Mountain West regular season title in four of the last five years and did so this year, by two full games over the best MWC in a long time, despite losing Drew Gordon to graduation.

But here’s the most important detail, one that you may not see mentioned elsewhere: when Howland was hired at UCLA, he was coming off of back-to-back regular season Big East titles, but neither season produced anything more impressive than a Sweet 16 berth. Howland’s third season at UCLA sparked three straight trips to the Final Four. Alford’s lack of tourney success doesn’t mean that he can’t succeed at UCLA.

When it comes down to it, there weren’t many great options for UCLA. They got turned down by the two best candidates available. So remember, when you criticize the hiring of Alford, you’re saying that UCLA was dumb to pick him over the likes of Lorenzo Romar and Mark Gottfried.

Given the circumstances, I think UCLA did pretty well for themselves.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

No. 11 North Carolina beats No. 10 Virginia Tech 103-82

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Freshman Coby White scored 27 points and No. 11 North Carolina knocked down a season-high 16 3-pointers to beat No. 10 Virginia Tech 103-82 on Monday night.

Fellow rookie Nassir Little added a season-high 23 points for the Tar Heels (15-4, 5-1 Atlantic Coast Conference), who struggled out of the gate to fall behind by nine while making just 1 of their first 12 3s.

But it wasn’t long before just about everything started falling from behind the arc, an avalanche that sparked a game-turning 20-0 run that pushed UNC to a 45-31 lead by halftime.

UNC made 15 of its last 22 3-pointers, finished the game shooting 54 percent and led by as many as 27 points.

Ahmed Hill scored 20 points for the Hokies (15-3, 4-2), who made 6 of 7 3-pointers in a fast start only to end the half by going nearly 6 minutes without a basket.

BIG PICTURE

Virginia Tech: This was the Hokies’ second road game against a ranked opponent in the past week. Things went poorly in the first at No. 3 Virginia, with the Hokies struggling at both ends in a woeful first half en route to a 22-point loss. They had a better start by moving the ball crisply (seven assists on their first eight baskets) and knocking down a barrage of outside looks. But they cooled a bit then had little answer for the Tar Heels’ game-turning flurry, which came after starting point guard Justin Robinson headed to the bench with his third foul at the 9:52 mark.

UNC: The Tar Heels were coming off a win at Miami that pushed them to 3-0 on the road in ACC play for only the fourth time in 16 seasons under Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams. This time they shook off that flat start once they started knocking down all the looks they were missing in the opening minutes. It helped, too, that the Tar Heels’ touted freshmen only got hotter as the game wore on. White finished with seven rebounds and six assists, while Little had his third straight double-figure scoring output with six rebounds.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: The Hokies host Syracuse on Saturday night.

UNC: The Tar Heels visit Georgia Tech on Jan. 29.

This story has been corrected to show UNC’s game at Georgia Tech is Jan. 29, not Saturday.

More AP college basketball: http://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Top25

No. 6 Michigan State beats No. 13 Maryland 69-55

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EAST LANSING, Mich. — Aaron Henry made the most of his opportunity to play in place of injured starter Joshua Langford.

The freshman forward had a season-high 12 points, helping No. 6 Michigan State beat No. 13 Maryland 69-55 on Monday night with balanced offense and stifling defense.

“The Henry kid, he’s really good,” Terrapins coach Mark Turgeon said. “Great defender, hard to box out. And, he makes shots. That was a key.”

The Spartans (17-2, 8-0 Big Ten) have won 12 straight this season and are in sole possession of first in the conference. They have won a school-record 20 consecutive Big Ten regular season games dating to last year. The run ties the fifth-longest winning streak in Big Ten history and is conference’s longest since Illinois won 25 straight during the 2003-04 and 2004-05 seasons.

“I don’t think they give a trophy for it,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

Cassius Winston and Kenny Goins each scored 14 points while Matt McQuaid and Xavier Tillman had 10 points apiece for the Spartans.

The Terrapins (16-4, 7-2) had a shot to move into first place in the conference, but couldn’t extend their seven-game winning streak.

“We couldn’t guard them,” Turgeon said. “We went a few possessions with zone, but that’s not who we are.

“We let our offense affect our defense.”

Maryland’s leading scorer, Anthony Cowan, was held to a season-low seven points.

“That was huge,” Henry said. “We looked at him on film and said, `He’s the guy we’ve got to lock down.’ I felt we did that.”

The Terrapins connected on just 34.4 percent of their shots and matched their season low against the Spartans. They shot 58 percent of in their previous game, a 14-point win at Ohio State.

Bruno Fernando had 12 points and 13 rebounds, freshman Aaron Wiggins had a season-high 15 points and Darryl Morsell added 10 points.

The Spartans missed their first six shots then surged to an 18-6 lead while holding Maryland to 3-of-18 shooting.

Maryland started making shots to pull into 20-all tie.

“I thought we could win at that point,” Cowan said. “We just didn’t get enough stops.”

Michigan State closed half with an 11-0 run to lead 31-20.

Winston, who had just five points in the first half, opened the second half with a 3-pointer to put the Spartans ahead by 14. He had a three-point play a couple minutes later, giving Michigan State a 43-26 lead. Goins made a 3-pointer to push the lead to 22 with 15:28 left.

The Terrapins rallied to cut their deficit to 11 with 5:42 remaining, but couldn’t get closer.

“I didn’t think it was the prettiest game, but I was really impressed by our defense,” Izzo said.

BIG PICTURE

Maryland: Cowan crumbled against Michigan State’s defense, which included a player guarding him closely while a post player lurked nearby in case he got into the lane. He had scored 20-plus points in four straight games and was averaging 17.9 points entering the game before being held nearly 11 below his average on 3-of-12 shooting. Cowan made a shot early in the game then was held scoreless for 26-plus minutes.

“They really did a good job of closing the gaps,” he said. “And, we just didn’t make plays and that made their defense look a lot better.”

Michigan State: In its only home game during a five-game stretch, the Spartans showed they can win without Langford and basically without struggling starter Nick Ward. Langford missed his sixth straight game with an ankle injury. Ward was held scoreless for the first time in his career, limited to 14 minutes at least in part because he was in foul trouble. Kyle Ahrens, who has started seven games this season, returned from a two-game absence with a back injury and made a reverse layup to help hold off Maryland in the second half.

INJURY REPORT

Izzo said Langford will miss at least one more game.

“He shot some (Sunday) and that was encouraging,” Izzo said. “Now that the boot has been taken off periodically, now that he can work out a little bit, we’re starting to see some progress.

Langford averaged 15 points in 13 games this season, including an 18-point performance in the opening loss to No. 9 Kansas and a career-high 29 points in a win over Texas later in November.

BRIDGES COMES BACK

Charlotte Hornets rookie Miles Bridges , who left Michigan State after his sophomore season, returned to the Breslin Center to kiss the school’s logo on the court before the game. The program’s departing seniors have done that since Shawn Respert did it in 1995. Izzo wants his former players, who enter the NBA draft early, to come back to be a part of the tradition.

UP NEXT

Maryland: Gives up home game to play Illinois at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.

Michigan State: Plays at No. 19 Iowa on Thursday night and at Purdue on Sunday afternoon.

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

AP Poll: Tennessee moves to No. 1 in Top 25, Duke drops to No. 2

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Top-ranked Duke went down early in the week. No. 2 Michigan and No. 4 Virginia, the last of Division I’s unbeaten teams, both fell over the weekend. In all, six top-10 teams lost.

Tennessee kept rolling amid chaos across the AP Top 25.

The Vols are the new No. 1 in The Associated Press men’s college basketball poll on Monday, climbing three spots to earn their first top ranking since the 2007-08 season.

Tennessee received 48 of 64 first-place votes from a media panel in the poll released Monday, well ahead of No. 2 Duke with 11. No. 3 Virginia received three first-place votes and No. 6 Michigan State two. Gonzaga and Michigan rounded out the top five.

“The guys playing right now built this thing,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.

Expectations followed the Vols into the 2018-19 season. With its top six scorers back from a team that shared the SEC title, Tennessee had its highest preseason ranking at No. 6 and was eyeing a deep NCAA Tournament run in Barnes’ fourth season.

The Vols have lived up to the forecast so far, bouncing back from an overtime loss to then-No. 2 Kansas to win 12 straight games. Tennessee knocked Gonzaga from atop the AP Top 25 with Barnes’ first win over a No. 1 team in early December and won its two games last week, rolling over Arkansas and holding off Alabama .

The only other time Tennessee (16-1, 5-0) was No. 1, it lost the next night to Vanderbilt — the Vols’ opponent on Wednesday.

“Tennessee basketball hasn’t been ranked No. 1 in a long time,” Vols guard Jordan Bone said. “That’s a good feeling, but we can’t be so locked in on that. We have to continue to stay hungry. We can’t be so focused on that. It’s so fleeting. It can change really quick.”

The changes in the AP Top 25 came quickly after a wild week.

Duke started by losing to Syracuse in overtime at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils played without a sick Cam Reddish and lost point guard Tre Jones to a shoulder injury in the first half.

Reddish returned against Virginia on Saturday and Duke responded with a superb game, knocking Virginia from the unbeaten ranks with a 72-70 victory despite playing without Jones.

Michigan lost to Wisconsin by 10, also on Saturday, leaving the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers as the last Division I team to go undefeated.

No. 7 Kansas, No. 8 Texas Tech and No. 9 Virginia Tech also lost. The Jayhawks fell two spots after losing to West Virginia. The Red Raiders dropped six spots to No. 14 after losses to Iowa State and Baylor. The Hokies were down one to No. 10 following a loss to Virginia.

In all, 13 ranked teams lost last week.

HERE IS THE FULL POLL

1. Tennessee (48 first-place votes)
2. Duke (11)
3. Virginia (3)
4. Gonzaga
5. Michigan
6. Michigan State
7. Nevada
8. Kentucky
9. Kansas
10. Virginia Tech
11. North Carolina
12. Marquette
13. Maryland
14. Texas Tech
14. Buffalo
16. Auburn
17. Houston
18. Villanova
19. Iowa
20. Ole Miss
21. N.C. State
22. Mississippi State
23. Louisville
24. Iowa State
25. LSU

KENTUCKY RISING

Kentucky saw a steady slide down the AP Top 25 after opening the season with a blowout loss to Duke. The preseason No. 2, the Wildcats were down to No. 19 just a month ago, but started climbing again.

Kentucky is up to No. 8 after beating No. 14 Auburn and Georgia this week, with games against No. 22 Mississippi State and No. 9 Kansas coming up.

RISING AND FALLING

No. 13 Maryland moved up six spots after beating Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Kentucky, No. 17 Houston and No. 18 Villanova each moved up four spots.

Florida State after stretching its losing streak to three games with losses to Pittsburgh and Boston College, falling out of the poll from No. 11.

MOVING IN

Louisville moved into the AP Top 25 for the first time this season at No. 23 following wins over Boston College and Georgia Tech.

Iowa State’s wins over Texas Tech and Oklahoma State put the Cyclones back in at No. 24 after they dropped out from No. 20 last week.

LSU beat then-No. 19 Mississippi and South Carolina last week to return to the poll at No. 25.

MOVING OUT

Oklahoma joined Florida State in dropping out of the poll following losses to Kansas State and Texas. The Sooners were No. 20 last week.

Indiana, No. 25 last week, did not receive a single vote after lopsided losses to Nebraska and Purdue.

Tre Jones ‘doubtful’ for game vs. Pitt

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It does not appear that Duke will be getting their freshman point guard back for Tuesday’s game against Pitt.

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters on Monday morning that Tre Jones is “doubtful” to play in the next game for the Blue Devils.

“He’s not going to play unless something miraculous happens,” Krzyzewski said.

Jones injured his shoulder six minutes into Duke’s loss to Syracuse last Monday. He did not return to the floor and Duke later announced that Jones had suffered a sprain of the AC joint in his right shoulder. He did not play in Saturday’s win over No. 4 Virginia, but earlier in the week Coach K told The Athletic that the injury was not expected to keep Jones out for an extended amount of time.

Zion Williamson on sitting out: ‘If I was going to sit out, I wouldn’t have gone to college’

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Zion Williamson is not going to be taking Scottie Pippen’s advice anytime soon.

After putting up 27 points and nine boards in Saturday night’s win over No. 4 Virginia, Williamson spoke to reporters and put an end to any speculation that he would listen to the NBA Hall of Famer and cut his college career short by sitting out the rest of the season.

“I can’t just stop playing,” he told Yahoo Sports on Saturday. “I’d be letting my teammates down. I’d be letting Coach K down. I’d be letting a lot of people down.”

Earlier in the week, Pippen had posed the theory that Williamson needed to shut it down, that risking injury by playing for free when he’s already sewn up being the No. 1 pick in June’s draft and ensured himself millions and millions (and millions) in marketing dollars was the wrong decision.

Frankly, it’s not the worst idea that I’ve ever heard. Zion has a chance to make a billion dollars during his basketball career. If you don’t believe me at face value, think about it like this: He is two months into his college career, and you already unequivocally know exactly who I am talking about when I say the name “Zion”.

That’s a lot of risk to take on even if the chances of a career-ending injury actually occurring is so low.

So I get it.

And I’m sure Pippen isn’t the only one saying as much to to him.

But rest easy, Duke fans.

It’s not happening.

“If I was going to sit out, I wouldn’t have gone to college,” he said. “I’m thankful that Coach K gave me the opportunity.”