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Rick Barnes emerges as the new front-runner in UCLA's basketball coaching search

Rick Barnes emerges as the new front-runner in UCLA's basketball coaching search
Rick Barnes, who appears to be the front-runner for the vacant UCLA coaching job, guided Tennessee to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament this season. (Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes has emerged as the latest front-runner in UCLA’s circuitous men’s basketball coaching search, providing a veteran candidate who has enjoyed a recent revival of a career spanning more than three decades.

Barnes has interviewed with school officials, according to a person with knowledge of the situation not authorized to speak publicly about the Bruins’ quest for a permanent replacement for Steve Alford.

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UCLA also expressed recent interest in Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger, according to the same person. Kruger released a statement Sunday night saying he had not interviewed for the job or had any contact with Bruins officials.

Barnes, 64, is coming off a season in which the Volunteers reached a regional semifinal in the NCAA tournament and he was selected the Naismith coach of the year. A person close to Barnes told The Times that Barnes would accept the job if offered.

Barnes has a 692-364 record in 32 seasons as a college coach, taking Texas to the Final Four in 2003 and making two other appearances in a regional final during his 17 seasons with the Longhorns. He has coached national players of the year T.J. Ford and Kevin Durant, as well as seven-time NBA All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge.

Texas fired Barnes in 2015 after seven consecutive seasons of not reaching the NCAA tournament’s second weekend, but he was quickly hired by Tennessee. Barnes has increased his victory total in each of his first four seasons with the Volunteers, finishing 31-6 this season, including a 15-3 record in the Southeastern Conference.

Tennessee advanced to a regional semifinal in the NCAA tournament this season before losing to Purdue.

Barnes was paid $3.25 million this season, according to USA Today’s salary database, with a $5-million buyout. Michael Schwartz, one of Barnes’ assistants, played basketball at Beverly Hills High.

Barnes coached at George Mason, Providence and Clemson before arriving at Texas in 1998.

Kruger, 66, has a similar resume, with one notable exception. He has a 639-409 record in 33 seasons, making trips to the Final Four with Florida and Oklahoma, but his teams have backslid in recent seasons.

The Sooners were 11-20, 18-14 and 20-14 over the last three seasons, finishing with a losing record in the Big 12 Conference each season. Kruger was paid $3.2 million this season, according to USA Today, and has a $3.9-million buyout.

UCLA pivoted in its coaching search over the weekend after refusing to pay the $8-million buyout on Texas Christian coach Jamie Dixon’s contract. The Bruins had identified Dixon as their top choice after a bevy of more high-profile coaches expressed no interest in the job, were eliminated by the school’s background checks or declined to be interviewed until after the Final Four.

UCLA made an initial push for Kentucky coach John Calipari, offering him a six-year, $45-million contract. Calipari eventually told school officials he wasn’t interested before accepting what amounted to a lifetime contract to remain with the Wildcats.

The Bruins were also strongly considering Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin last week. He had not been informed that his candidacy had ended as of Sunday, according to a person close to the Bearcats coach.

Alford was fired in late December after five-plus seasons with wildly varying results. He guided the Bruins to regional semifinal appearances in 2014, 2015 and 2017, but the team did not reach the NCAA tournament in 2016 and qualified as one of the final entrants in 2018, losing to St. Bonaventure in a play-in game.

When the Bruins started 7-6 this season with home losses to Belmont and Liberty, school officials decided to dismiss Alford.

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