Joe Santoro: Alford’s many connections to NCAA tourney

The month of March 2021 could not have been the best month of Steve Alford’s coaching career. His Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team saw its season end in the Mountain West tournament, possibly falling just one victory away from at least getting a NIT invitation.
That was bad enough. But it was just the start of Alford’s March Misery. He then had to deny rumors he was interested in the vacant Indiana Hoosiers’ head coaching job and had to read that Indiana wasn’t even considering him. Alford’s month of March then got a little bit worse when Eric Musselman, the living legend he replaced at Nevada, coached the Arkansas Razorbacks to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament.
Alford’s Nevada career, after all, will always be compared to Musselman’s four seasons in Reno and it’s not a comparison that is, so far, flattering to the Humble Hoosier. That comparison, annoying as it may be, though, is more of a media and fan thing than an Alford thing.
The worst part of Alford’s March Misery, though, is still going strong. The UCLA Bruins, the school that fired Alford in December 2018, are in the Final Four of this year’s NCAA Tournament. And the guy who replaced Alford at UCLA, Mick Cronin, is getting all the attention and spotlight.
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It is a bit strange to think of UCLA as a NCAA tournament Cinderella. But that is what some silly media people are calling the Bruins this week because of their No. 11 tournament seed. The Bruins will never be a NCAA Tournament Cinderella, not with 11 tournament championships.
The Bruins and former coach John Wooden basically created and invented March Madness. Wooden, who won 10 titles and put together four unbeaten, perfect seasons and three others with just one loss, casts a daunting shadow over the UCLA program and every coach not named Wooden that coached UCLA. That shadow is the reason why Alford was fired.
Alford won 66 percent of his games at UCLA and went to four NCAA Tournaments in five full years and three Sweet 16s. If Alford ever does that at Nevada you will be able to drive by Lawlor Events Center and see his statue. Alford could never live up to those Wooden expectations.
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Cronin, by the way, has a couple of not-so-flattering Nevada connections. The first one took place in March 2016 when he reportedly agreed to become the head coach at UNLV. Former UNLV athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy was quoted as saying Cronin agreed to take the job and then shockingly jilted the Rebels. The Rebels have since hired three more coaches (Marvin Menzies, T.J. Otzelberger and Kevin Kruger).
Two years later, in March 2018, Cronin had another Nevada nightmare. Cronin was the Cincinnati Bearcats coach who blew a 22-point 65-43 lead over Musselman’s Wolf Pack in the NCAA Tournament. The Pack outscored Cronin’s Bearcats 32-8 over the final 11:37 to steal one of the more remarkable victories (75-73) in tournament history. This year Cronin and Musselman’s teams were both in the Elite Eight.
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Alford’s March Misery just might continue into April. The last Division I college team to go through an entire season undefeated was the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers who went 32-0. Alford didn’t play for that Indiana team since he was just 11years old in March 1976. But his eventual Indiana coach, Bobby Knight, did coach that team and the 1975-76 Hoosiers are a tremendous source of pride for all Hoosiers. Hoosier fans, which Alford became at birth, are like Miami Dolphins fans who love to remind everyone of the 1972 perfect Dolphins.
The 1975-76 Hoosiers have enjoyed a 45-year run as the last perfect college team but that run might come to an end this weekend. Gonzaga, which plays UCLA in the semifinals, is 30-0 and two wins away from taking the “Last Perfect Team” title away from the Hoosiers. Alford now has the choice of pulling for the school that fired him or the school that will take his 1975-76 Hoosiers out of the national spotlight every March.
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Gonzaga and its coach, Mark Few, never get the credit they deserve. Gonzaga, without question, has been one of the best college programs in the nation since Few took over in 1999-2000. Few has a record of 629-124, has won 306-of-337 West Coast Conference games and has never missed getting an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. This is Few’s second Final Four (he lost in the 2017 title game) and has won 163-of-176 games over the past five seasons.
Gonzaga, year after year, is the true Cinderella. The school doesn’t even have a football team. Their home gym only seats 6,000 fans. It’s a glorified Division II school. There is absolutely no reason why the Zags should be among the best Division I basketball programs in the nation, year after year after year. It will be difficult to root against Gonzaga this weekend. Sorry, Hoosiers.
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Gonzaga, which is located in Spokane, Wash., has three connections with the Wolf Pack that come immediately to mind. The first one took place in 1979 when Gonzaga and Nevada basically traded places. Gonzaga went from the Big Sky Conference to the West Coast Conference and the Pack took Gonzaga’s place in the Big Sky, moving from the WCC. The move made sense for both schools because the Pack had a football program (and a coach named Chris Ault) and Gonzaga had not played football since 1941. There is now a library on the grounds where the Gonzaga football team once played.
The second strong Nevada-Gonzaga connection is Adrian Buoncristiani. Buoncristiani coached the Zags basketball team for six seasons, from 1972-78, winning 78 games and losing 82 in the Big Sky. Buoncristiani later moved to Carson City where he was a very successful Converse shoe representative. He later helped Tom Maurer coach the Galena High Grizzlies boys basketball team in the late 1990s, mainly because his son Lance was a star point guard for the Grizzlies. Lance Buoncristiani was one of the most exciting point guards in Nevada high school basketball history and later played one season for the University of Idaho.
The third Nevada-Gonzaga connection is the Wolf Pack’s 91-72 victory over Gonzaga in the 2004 NCAA Tournament. The win over Few’s Zags gave the Pack its first Sweet 16 appearance and changed Pack basketball forever.
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It is difficult to imagine the San Francisco Giants winning more 75-80 games this year. It will be fun watching former Reed High star Jake McGee try to save games for the Giants this summer but McGee might not get enough save chances to keep everyone in Northern Nevada interested.
The Giants, for some reason, still refuse to go all in on a full rebuild and are content to merely plug away as the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres dominate the National League West. Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford, holdovers from the World Series years, are still on the roster and will likely play significant roles this year if they stay healthy. That’s not good news.

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