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In Indiana, Iowa Coach Alford Is a Hoosier Hero

By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 17, 2005; Page D08

INDIANAPOLIS, March 16 -- The last time Iowa Coach Steve Alford walked on the court in the downtown dome here, he was an all-American guard at Indiana. The Hoosiers had just beaten Auburn in the second round of the 1987 NCAA tournament, and then-Indiana coach Bobby Knight pulled Alford aside after they finished an interview with CBS.

"What do you think?" Knight asked Alford.

Iowa's Steve Alford helped Hoosiers to 1987 national title. (Charlie Neibergall AP)

"I think we'll win it all," Alford told his coach.

The conversation proved to be prophetic -- two weeks later, the Hoosiers stunned Syracuse, 74-73, in the national championship game in New Orleans on Keith Smart's last-second jumper from the corner.

"Those memories haven't faded at all," Alford said Wednesday during a news conference at the RCA Dome, where the 10th-seeded Hawkeyes play seventh-seeded Cincinnati Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Eighteen years after Alford led the Hoosiers to their fifth national championship, basketball fans in Indiana are clinging to those memories, too, especially this season. For the first time since 1972, no schools from Indiana are playing in the NCAA tournament. Notre Dame lost to Holy Cross in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament on Tuesday night, and the Hoosiers lost to Vanderbilt on Wednesday in an NIT game. Purdue was the worst team in the Big Ten during Gene Keady's last season as Boilermakers coach.

Not even smaller schools in Indiana, such as Ball State, Butler, Evansville, Indiana State and Valparaiso, which have made several appearances in the NCAA tournament and even pulled off occasional upsets, are in the 65-team field. Since 1985, the state averaged three teams per year in the NCAA tournament, and in 2002, six schools from Indiana played in the event.

With No. 2 seed Kentucky and the Bearcats playing in Indianapolis, good crowds are still expected at the RCA Dome when games begin Thursday (Indianapolis was one of only two NCAA sub-regional sites that weren't sold out as of Wednesday, partly because of the dome's capacity of more than 33,000).

But in a state where basketball is supposed to matter most, the NCAA tournament figures to be barely a blip on the radar. Indiana fans are just thankful the NCAA men's selection committee didn't put Texas Tech -- and its coach, Knight -- in Indianapolis for first- and second-round games.

"I can remember back that far back in 1972, but I never thought it would happen again," said Bobby Plump, whose heroics as a player at tiny Milan High School during the 1954 Indiana high school basketball tournament inspired the movie "Hoosiers." "For a state that's so basketball crazy, it takes a lot of interest out of it. Having no team from Indiana in the NCAA tournament is really hard to take."

So basketball fans here are left cheering for Alford, a native of nearby New Castle, who won the state's Mr. Basketball award in 1983 and was a two-time all-American at Indiana.

Alford "is a legend around here," Cincinnati Coach Bob Huggins said. "We are fully expecting the crowd to be behind him. The Indiana people are going to come out and support him, and they should for all he's done for Indiana."

The Hawkeyes are making their second NCAA tournament appearance in Alford's six seasons, after winning five of their last six games to secure an at-large bid. Iowa started the season 12-1, but then lost nine of 13 after leading scorer Pierre Pierce was dismissed from the team.

"Even though we lost Pierre, we knew we could still be a good team," guard Jeff Horner said. "Coach Alford never changed the process. He kept us together and deserves a lot of credit."

If the Hawkeyes play well during the NCAA tournament, the speculation that Alford might replace embattled Indiana coach Mike Davis will probably intensify. Alford, who has a contract at Iowa that runs through the 2008-09 season, has refused to speculate on the Indiana job in the past.

For now, though, Alford gladly carries the banner for his home state in the NCAA tournament.

"It's important," Alford said. "I spent the majority of my life there. I was born a Hoosier and raised that way. There are going to be a lot of people who appreciate what I did as a player and how I did it as a player."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company