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Mike Lopresti | | March 14, 2023

Nevada and Arizona State set to meet in the First Four — so are their former national champion coaches

The best men's first round games in 2023 March Madness

DAYTON, Ohio — They both played for their fathers in high school.

They both know what it feels like to be standing on the podium the night of the national championship.

They both were on the court and watched teammates make iconic shots in the NCAA tournament.

They both went into college as skinny guards and left as legends.

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Oh, if only Wednesday night’s First Four contest between Arizona State and Nevada could be decided by a coaches’ one-on-one game.

In one corner, Arizona State and Bobby Hurley. Mike Krzyzewski’s old point guard at Duke.

In the other, Nevada and Steve Alford, Bob Knight’s former 3-point and free throw artist at Indiana.

Maybe we’ve seen more dynamic coaching matchups in past brackets but seldom between men who were more accomplished tournament players in their salad days.

Alford, the national champion at Indiana in 1987.

Hurley, the national champion at Duke in 1991 and ’92.

Alford, the Big Ten MVP, and also Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in high school. If you don’t think that last item is a big deal, ask anyone from Indiana.

Hurley, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player in 1992. As a high school guard in New Jersey, his teams went 115-5.

Do such glorious resumes mean anything, with a First Four date imminent? They do to their players.

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Nevada’s Kenan Blackshear about Alford: “He’s won the national championship as a player, so he knows what we’re going through. He’s just basically saying like, take in the moment and just basically kill the opportunity, what’s in front of you basically.”

And teammate Jarod Lucas: “Coach has a unique perspective being that as a player he won a national championship. I don’t think too many coaches can say the same thing.”

Well, the guy the Wolf Pack are playing against Wednesday night can.

Arizona State’s Desmond Cambridge Jr. about Hurley: “With a guy who’s done as much as Coach Hurley has done as a player, that really means a lot because you can take his word for what it is. He’s been through a lot of trials and tribulations. He makes sure to show off his rings and all of his accolades, and I feel like that’s a big motivation for us and gives us something to look forward to and reach for.”

The coaches? They’re not really sure their deeds three-plus decades ago resonate much in 2023. They come from the dark ages. Before cell phones.

“Yeah, it’s hard,” Alford said of using his own career as an impetus for his team. “Playing-wise you don’t do that so much anymore because I’m ancient. Playing in the ‘80s, I show them clips but they can’t even tell what jersey number I am anymore.
“It’s a different game. Sometimes I like to tell my guys they’re playing in a PlayStation era where you can just shoot any shot you want and do the things you want and those types of things. They get probably mad at me when I tell them that. A little bit more physical, a little bit more contact, in my opinion, back in the day.”

Hurley, too.

“I think probably just if they’re not playing well, if they had a bad game, I might show them some highlights of me doing something good just to needle them a little bit, kind of poke the bear.

“Outside of that I try and avoid it. But some of the experiences that you have – thing you’ve experienced in a game  -- you have to share those things with your players. It might have been a different time but there’s certainly value in talking about how to get there and the journey, and hopefully I’ve communicated some of those things along the way.”

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Both were around long enough to became the faces of their programs. Hurley started 139 games at Duke, Alford 120 at Indiana. Alford was the bigger scorer with a 19.5 career average. Hurley was 12.4 but his duties were different; he had nearly 700 more assists.

The irony is the most memorable shots during each of their careers were taken by someone else.

For Hurley, it was Christian Laettner’s buzzer-beater against Kentucky in their 104-103 regional epic in 1992.  “I was exhausted after that game,” he said. “Rick Pitino’s team picked me up and trapped me the whole game and I think I had eight turnovers . . . I was terrible at taking care of the ball.

“Made some shots along the way but I had the best view of that pass (to Laettner) that just . . . sailed right over my head, like it yesterday. It was like time was frozen.”

Alford had 23 points in the 1987 national championship game against Syracuse, hitting seven of 10 from the 3-point arc. But all that would have been only good for second place had not Keith Smart buried a baseline jumper with four seconds left to make the Hoosiers a 74-73 winner. Alford had scored 33 points two days earlier in the 97-93 semifinal victory over No. 1 UNLV and it’s hard to imagine 33 and 23 points not being enough to be named the MOP of the Final Four. But the drama of Smart’s shot carried the vote.
 “When you get to March it’s called madness for a reason," he said. "because you have these highs and then you can have just a terrible low because the low now is the season is over. That’s what March is about.”

It was Alford’s last college game and what a way to exit. Hurley was not so fortunate. He was back without Laettner in 1993 and Duke was upset in the second round by California, despite his 32 points.

Three decades later, those glory days are faded and it is their coaching that now must them cheers. Time passes. Don Donoher was in the house for Wednesday's Nevada practice. He's 91 years old and led Dayton to the national championship game 56 years ago, making him the oldest living title game coach. He also was an assistant for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. Knight was the head coach and Alford was on the team, one year out of high school. Alford and Donoher are still connected.

This is Alford’s 12th NCAA tournament with his fifth different program – Missouri State, Iowa, New Mexico, UCLA and Nevada. Only three other men can say they made it with five schools. Hurley is on his fourth tournament, three with Arizona State and Buffalo before that.

Their fates Wednesday rely on the performance of kids who weren’t born when they were among the most renowned names in March, doing great things in blueblood places. A long time ago. “It’s what this tournament is built on, those type of memories,” Hurley said. 

So what’s say, a coaches’ free throw contest to see who advances to play TCU?

Hurley was nearly a 78 percent career free throw shooter. Very respectable. But Alford was a machine. He was at nearly 90 percent.

If it comes to that, take Nevada.

2023 March Madness live streams, TV times, schedule (All times Eastern)

Saturday, April 1 (Final Four)

Monday, April 3 (National championship game)

2023 NCAA tournament final scores, highlights

Tuesday, March 14 (First Four in Dayton, Ohio)

Wednesday, March 15 (First Four in Dayton, Ohio)

Thursday, March 16 (Round of 64)

Friday, March 17 (Round of 64)

Saturday, March 18 (Round of 32)

Sunday, March 19 (Round of 32)

Thursday, March 23 (Sweet 16)

Friday, March 24 (Sweet 16)

Saturday, March 25 (Elite 8)

Sunday, March 26 (Elite 8)

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