SALT LAKE CITY — There weren’t many details Harvard coach Tommy Amaker or New Mexico coach Steve Alford could share about the 26th anniversary of their only meeting on the basketball court, in the 1987 NCAA Tournament.
So much time has passed since Amaker (Duke) and Alford (Indiana) played against each other as college All-Americans that the memories have become yellowed and frayed, like the press clippings of the top-seeded Hoosiers’ 88-82 victory over the Blue Devils on March 20, 1987, in the Midwest Regional semifinals at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati.
“All I remember was that was actually my final game as a collegiate player,’’ said Amaker, who was the lone returning starter from Duke’s 1986 Final Four team that finished runner-up to Louisville. “We played against Indiana in the Sweet 16 in Cincinnati and they had a great team.’’
The Hoosiers went on to the Final Four in New Orleans and defeated Syracuse, 74-73, in the national championship on a game-winning shot by Keith Smart.
“I don’t remember a whole lot,’’ Alford said. “It’s been so long ago that I remember that’s when Duke was just starting to get on the scene.
“In ’86, I think, was the start of Duke really coming to the forefront of college basketball. Then in ’87, we beat them in the Sweet 16 and they continued to ascend every year after that.’’
A quarter-century later, Amaker and Alford, who coached against each other in the Big Ten, will coach against each other for the first time in the NCAA Tournament.
The 14th-seeded Crimson (19-9), winners of the Ivy League title for the third year in a row, face off against Alford’s third-seeded Lobos (29-5), winners of the Mountain West regular-season and conference tournament for the second year in a row, in the West Regional Thursday night.
“Just hope I can pay him back,’’ said Amaker. “I owe him one.’’
“We obviously like the matchup, just because we’re in it, but Tommy’s a good friend,’’ Alford said. “He played at Duke when I played at Indiana. He’s coached about the same number of years I have. He was at Michigan when I was at Iowa.
“So we’re colleagues, we’re friends, and it’ll be fun going up against each other.’’
At each juncture, it seems, Alford has gotten the better of Amaker.
During his six seasons at Michigan, where he went 108-84, Amaker lost five of nine meetings against Alford’s Iowa squad, dropping the last three, including two by as many as 20 points.
“Steve’s done a terrific job wherever he’s been as a coach,’’ Amaker said. “I don’t think he and I would’ve ever thought of this happening.
“Being in the coaching profession, you recognize that the journeys are going to cross over a lot of different ways, if you’re lucky enough to stay involved and be a representative of great schools.
“I’ve always admired Steve, and have known him for a long time, and knew he was a terrific player and has become one of the best coaches around.’’
Although they competed fiercely as Big Ten coaches, their friendship seemed to blossom from the similarities they shared. Amaker was Mr. Basketball for the Washington, D.C., area his senior year at Falls Church, Va. Alford was Indiana’s Mr. Basketball. And they sprouted from the same coaching tree.
“Yeah, we have the same lineage, I guess you could say,’’ said Amaker, referring to the fact that he played for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who played for Indiana coach Bob Knight at Army.
Said Alford, “He played for Coach Krzyzewski and I played for Coach Knight, so we’re kind of from the same tree that way and we coach the same way. We want our guys to be smart, we want our guys to work hard and be fundamentally sound.
“The easiest way to win games is to make sure you make fewer mistakes than your opponent does. I think Tommy’s done that over his career.’’
When he met Alford as a player, Amaker did not deviate from that approach.
In 1987, Amaker was the Blue Devils’ defensive stopper, the nation’s Defensive Player of the Year. Alford was considered the Hoosiers’ offensive catalyst, averaging 22.0 points per game in his final season in Bloomington.
Although the outcome didn’t reflect it, Amaker outlasted, outshot, outscored, and, truth be told, outplayed Alford, who was held to 18 points on 6-for-16 shooting from the field in 38 minutes. Amaker played all 40 minutes and scored a game-high 23 points on 8-for-17 shooting.
“It’s hard to remember that far back, but Tommy was an outstanding player,’’ Alford said. “Duke was set up very similar to Indiana and very fundamentally sound on defense and always a help-defensive team. But Tommy was a great player, and a great defensive player.
“He worked so hard, so you knew you were going to earn anything you got on him or got on Duke.’’
So when Harvard learned of its seeding, destination, and opponent Sunday, Amaker knew the Lobos would be a reflection of their hard-nosed and offensive-minded coach.
“You know what his background has been,’’ Amaker said. “He’s always been a great shooter and a great scorer, and so he’s always had guys who can do those kinds of things as well in terms of his personnel.
“He’s fundamentally sound, solid in every facet of the game — that’s how he played and that’s how he’s been as a coach. And that’s why he’s been successful and that’s why he’s done, I think, one of the more underrated coaching jobs in the country since he’s been at New Mexico.’’
That sentiment seemed to be mutual.
“I thought what Tommy did at Seton Hall and Michigan, the things he was trying to do there, he was trying to do it the right way,’’ Alford said. “I think, given more of the things that were happening, whether it was in the Big Ten with facilities and those types of things, I think Michigan would’ve been a tremendous fit for him as well.
“It was similar to my situation at Iowa; there’s always going to be a fit that really fits you. I think Harvard and Tommy has just been a tremendous fit.
“You think of Harvard and you obviously think of academia and you think of discipline and that’s Tom. He was that way as a player.’’Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.