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If Hobson is the team's sizzle, the steak is Martinez, a natural-born leader and Academic All-America who is also the team's top three-point shooter. He's a figure so popular that Richardson proclaimed March 3 to be Roman Martinez Day throughout the state. Says Alford, "This team took on the face and the heart of their senior leader."
Alford has kept his boyish good looks from the '80s, not a hair out of place—much less gray or missing. He's still close to his playing weight of 185 pounds and holds his own when practicing with the team. How many free throws would he make out of 100? "If I don't make 97 or more, something is wrong," he says. Alford's office is festooned with Bible verses, and he possesses the politesse and media savvy that eluded Knight. At the same time he's capable of generating the kind of fire that would do his mentor proud. "I'm more competitive," he says with a wink, "than people might think."
That trait was the root cause of one of his few missteps this season. After a close win at BYU on Feb. 27 that enabled the Lobos to clinch the conference title, the two teams went through a postgame handshake line. Cougars senior Jonathan Tavernari, who'd been in a late-game confrontation with Hobson, ignored Alford. "You're an a------," snapped Alford, a remark caught on video that, inevitably, went viral online. Alford earned only a reprimand from the conference and was not exactly the picture of remorse in the aftermath. "If that's the way it is, I'm surprised there aren't more coaches getting reprimanded," he says.
Still, when an Albuquerque sports radio host offered a mild criticism of Alford, callers flooded the lines to defend the coach. "Alford has been the missing ingredient," says Richardson. "I consider him the team's biggest asset. People here love him."
In college basketball a hot, young coach has a momentum all his own—an escape velocity, as it were. Rest assured that after the NCAA tournament Alford's name will be tossed around every time a high-profile job (cough, cough, Louisville) comes vacant. It's the choreography that follows the Big Dance.
Alford professes no desire to relocate. As Knight predicted, he's taken to a part of the country where a man is judged by how spicy he takes his chili peppers. ("The real hot ones are still a shock to my Midwestern stomach," he says.) His wife, Tanya, a native Hoosier, loves it. Their sons, Kory and Bryce, a junior and freshman respectively, are on the varsity at La Cueva High. Their sixth-grade daughter, Kayla, is a regular at Lobos practices. There's the weather, the golf, and what Alford calls the "appreciation for living."
Another inducement to stay: The Lobos' future smells sweet, especially if Hobson opts not to go to the NBA. Their surpassing point guard Dairese Gary will return for his senior season. Drew Gordon, a 6'9" transfer from UCLA, will be eligible to play. Alford's first strong recruiting class—entirely his— will arrive. Plus, the Pit will be refurbished. "I've got an eight-year deal now," says Alford, "and I hope there are talks at the end of the season because I'd love to ink in for a long time."
For Alford and the New Mexico program to boost their respective profiles still further, the Lobos will need some success in the NCAA tournament. Their undersized lineup is vulnerable against opponents that are big inside, but the Lobos have proved they know how to win. If they simply live up to their status as a No. 3 seed—they are headed for the East Regional and a first-round matchup with Montana—it will mark the first time that a New Mexico team has reached the Sweet 16. "When you've been part of a great story," reasons Martinez, "you don't want it to end."
It's hard not to notice that the Final Four will be held in Indianapolis, a place where the New Mexico coach is deified, where his parents live, near where he still keeps a lakeside house. But if the Lobos keep their great story going and reach Indy, it won't represent much of a homecoming for Alford. He may persist as the iconic Hoosier, but for now, anyway, home is the Land of Enchantment.