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Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Take Three: Coach with the most on the line

By Jason King, Myron Medcalf & Dana O'Neil

Editor's Note: We want to be clear: This is not a piece about the hot seat. Rather, it's one that identifies three secure coaches who nevertheless have a lot on the line in 2013-14, whether it’s taking that first big step, fulfilling sky-high expectations or trying to prove doubters wrong.

Jason King: Steve Alford, UCLA

In some ways, it doesn’t make much sense to say that Steve Alford has something to prove. In his six years at New Mexico, Alford averaged 25.8 victories and won five Mountain West Conference titles. There’s no question the man can coach. Alford, though, will be operating under a whole new set of circumstances at UCLA, where expectations will be unreasonably high. This, after all, is a school that in March fired a coach who had been to three Final Fours and was weeks removed from winning the outright Pac-12 title. That might cut it at some programs, but it didn’t do Ben Howland any good in Westwood, where sub-30-win seasons are considered a failure.

Alford won’t have the grace period that most coaches are extended during their first season. He inherited a team that returns a likely first-round NBA draft pick in Kyle Anderson and a trio of proven forwards in David and Travis Wear and Jordan Adams. Arizona may be the clear-cut favorite in the Pac-12, but UCLA will be expected to at least make the race interesting. If the Bruins don’t, Alford will endure a boatload of criticism, especially considering the lukewarm reception to his hiring by fans and media. Alford’s lack of NCAA tournament success -- and his mediocre performance on the recruiting trail thus far -- has prompted some concerns about his ability to return UCLA to its days of dominance. And his often prickly personality may make it tough to win over fans. As a player at Indiana, Alford grew used to being in the spotlight. But never during his coaching career has he encountered what lies ahead during his first season at UCLA.

Myron Medcalf: John Calipari, Kentucky

It’s odd for a man with a national championship and Final Four appearances in two of the past three seasons to have something to prove. But that’s the position John Calipari is in after assembling the greatest recruiting class in college basketball history. Sure, there’s no guarantee this class will live up to the hype. But no group -- ever -- has warranted this much hoopla and excitement. He has six McDonald’s All Americans, and that’s just the freshmen. In all, Calipari boasts eight players who might be first-round picks in next summer’s NBA draft.

So what could go wrong? Well, last season, another talented young crew in Lexington lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. Was that a fluke? There’s immense pressure on Calipari and this Kentucky squad to prove that it was. He’s always been a premier recruiter, but recruiting alone, as we learned last year, is not the only quality that breeds success within the coaching ranks. Developing talent is critical. Calipari did that when he won a national title in 2012 with a squad that was led by freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The same result will be anticipated by Big Blue Nation in 2013-14. Yet the stench of last season’s tumult remains. The only relief will be a rally that ends in Texas with a Final Four appearance. Many will expect -- demand -- a national title. That’s what happens when a coach brings so many stars together. But can Calipari lead an inexperienced yet advanced group of young players to the championship again? Anything short of that could be considered a disappointment.

Dana O'Neil: Josh Pastner, Memphis

The news that Michael Dixon would be eligible immediately at Memphis turned the Tigers’ already terrific backcourt into arguably one of the best in the nation. It also upped the ante for the team overall, which means even higher expectations for Josh Pastner. The fifth-year coach has some questions on the inside, namely can Shaq Goodwin continue to make strides to help replace Adonis Thomas. But he’s got awfully good answers on the perimeter. Dixon, Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford are all different but all very good and, more important, all seniors. If Pastner can steal a page from Jay Wright’s four-guard handbook, he’s got the makings of a pretty good team.

Pastner has done a more-than-admirable job since taking over for Calipari. In three of his four years, the Tigers have made the NCAA tournament and last season won their first NCAA game in his tenure, beating Saint Mary’s before losing to Michigan State to finish 31-5. The trouble is, before Pastner arrived, winning an NCAA tournament game was a foregone conclusion. Calipari’s last four teams went Elite Eight, Elite Eight, national title game, Sweet 16. It’s an absurdly high bar. It’s frankly unfair to measure a team by its NCAA success only. Matchups and injuries can alter so many fates, but it is definitely Pastner’s reality. The folks of Memphis love their coach and love their Tigers, but they want to see the tourney's second weekend again.