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Richard Pitino to revive basketball in New Mexico

 

The New Mexico Lobos weren’t able to play at their iconic home arena during COVID-19 restrictions, but now fans are putting The Pit back together.

Albuquerque/IMAGO Journal

The heart of New Mexico lies a mile above sea level but 37 feet below ground in a bunker-like structure that comes to life for basketball games on winter nights.

The Pit is the center of the sports universe in New Mexico, a state without a major professional sports team that, like few others, rallies around its Lobos college basketball team. New Mexico is one of the few places (think Kentucky, Indiana, Kansas) where college basketball is more of a year-round obsession than a seasonal pastime. And The Pit takes its place in sports history by hosting the 1983 Final Four, which featured iconic championship winner and NC State dunk winner Lorenzo Charles, who still figures prominently in March Madness history. It was ranked #13 in Sports Illustrated’s favorite places of the 20th century in the same company as the Augusta National and the Rose Bowl. As Richard Hoffer wrote at the time, “The noise generated by fans, which is measured at 125 decibels – the pain threshold for the human ear is 130 – is a palpable force.”

In recent years, the heartbeat emanating from Yama has begun to fade. Eight straight years without a postseason spot since Steve Alford left Albuquerque for UCLA has tested the patience of fans, and no state has been more impacted by COVID-19 restrictions on sports and public events than New York. -Mexico. But in 2022-23, the roar of one of college basketball’s top fan bases is once again in full swing, and the 18-3 Lobos enter the AP top 25 for the first time in nearly a decade, hitting national action again.

Two seasons ago, New Mexico basketball bottomed out. Government restrictions due to COVID-19 have forced Lobo to spend the entire season playing as college basketball nomads. They spent most of the season playing home games in Lubbock, Texas as New Mexico would not allow them to play games at The Pit even without fans present. Before that, under coach Paul Weir, things didn’t go up and it only got worse when the team was forced to hit the road as the Lobos won just four Division I games and dropped to 294th in KenPom, the program’s worst ever finish. . more than 100 points. It was a shocking downfall for a program that, for the most part, has remained consistently relevant since The Pit opened in 1966. New Mexico and Weir mutually agreed to part ways in February of that year, beginning perhaps the most important coaching quest in the school’s history. try to level the ship.

“They had eight years of two coaches, Craig Neal and Paul Weir, seven of whom were fans who lost interest in them,” says Jeff Grammer, Lobos beat writer for the Albuquerque Journal and New Mexico native. “For the first 50 years The Pit was open, it was in the top 25 in terms of average home attendance. … The program is based on The Pit and based on the fans, and when they start to lose interest, it hurts the entire sports department.”

New Mexico Athletic Director Eddie Nunez played and coached in Florida under Billy Donovan. A call from his former coach and boss connected him to Richard Pitino, who worked under Donovan from 2009-11 and regularly jokes that he looks more like Donovan than his Hall of Famer father, Rick. Things have gone awry for Richard Pitino in Minnesota, so it’s likely he’ll be available this spring. And Pitino went above and beyond for Nunes, especially because of his coaching experience at a higher level.

“I didn’t want a coach who wasn’t at a high level because it’s hard to keep up with expectations,” Nunez says. “It’s a big program in terms of what our fan base expects, what we expect, and I needed someone who was there to make it happen.”

Having worked for his father in Louisville and Donovan in Florida and spent eight years as head coach in the Big Ten, Pitino is no stranger to expectations. Nunes knew from the first phone call between the two that it was the right decision, and he wasted no time when Minnesota officially fired Pitino. Pitino was told Minnesota would fire him at 7:00 p.m. Sunday night, and at 7:15 p.m. Nunes offered him a job in New Mexico. Pitino accepted and moved his life from the Land of 10,000 Lakes to the Land of Magic, spending less than half an hour in the unemployment line, instead of taking a year off, as many recently fired coaches do.

“Many people told me: “You should get into television; you would be good on TV,” says Pitino. “And I’ve always thought to myself, why is every TV guy trying to get a job as a head coach?”

Head coach Richard Pitino is rebuilding a basketball program in New Mexico that has hit rock bottom.

Albuquerque/IMAGO Journal

It was a revamp that on paper looked like it would take time as COVID-19 continues to impact recruitment as coaches were not allowed to recruit off campus or have visitors that spring. But Pitino brought with him a building block in Jamal Mashburn Jr., who averaged over 8 points per game as a rookie in Minnesota and decided to follow his coach all the way down to Mountain West.

“When I was fired, his father [Jamal Mashburn Sr., who played for Rick Pitino at Kentucky] called me and said: “Just tell me where you will end up, because throughout the process you told us the truth,” says Pitino. “It was a nice experience because when you get fired, you don’t feel very good. And it was nice to have one of your players say that.”

Mashburn Jr. wasn’t the only son of an NBA player to sign that first offseason. Jaylen House, the son of 11-year NBA veteran Eddie House, transferred from Arizona State to join the Lobos, forming the talented backcourt with Mashburn Jr. that brought New Mexico to life in its first year. Mashburn brought stability and maturity, while House brought fire and a sense of drama. The duo averaged over 35 points per game and helped lift the Lobos from No. 290 to a more respectable No. 161 in the national rankings, including an upset victory over an NCAA Tournament-qualified team from Wyoming. But the Lobos still lost 19 games, mostly due to a lack of inside presence, causing the team’s defense to burn out.

Enter two more transfers: Morris Udeze from Wichita State and Josiah Allik from UMKC. Starters in the center and power forwards, respectively, Udeze and Allik provided the inside to go with House and Mashburn in the backcourt. Udeze is one of the best low-post scorers in the conference, while Allik provides toughness on defense and on the glass. All of a sudden, Lobos had a roster to rival the top of Mountain West, just two seasons after finishing in last place in Weir’s final year. Result: A 14-0 start that made New Mexico the nation’s last undefeated team, headlined by a road win at St. Mary’s and a victory over Iona Rick Pitino’s team in Albuquerque. And with Lobos winning and COVID-19 restrictions in the rearview mirror, it’s time for Yama to roar again.

It is often difficult to appreciate historical sites without having been there. You don’t fully understand how steep the seating walls are in the auditorium until you enter the building. Any baseball fan who has been to Fenway Park will remember the feeling when they stepped onto the first side of the base and were almost consumed by the grandeur of the Green Monster. The same goes for “The Pit”, which should be on every fan’s wishlist.

Since the arena is literally built into the ground, you enter the lobby level by primarily sitting outside of a few luxury suites. Rows are numbered from top to bottom, so don’t think you’ve made a bargain by finding cheap Row 1 tickets on StubHub. Most of the arena is still equipped with the old metal stands, painted red. The ceiling is pitch black and flat, with no jumbotron in the middle. Very little natural light penetrates here, even during the day, so everywhere except the yard itself is quite dark. And from the bowels of the court there is only one exit to the court: an incredibly steep tunnel, painted cherry red on three sides, with The Pit slogan on one side: “Welcome to The Pit, a mile high and louder than …”. so steep that visiting teams have a tradition of trying to roll the ball over it, only to (usually) watch the ball fade and start to roll back towards the top.

The Jan. 20 game against Boise State, with over 14,500 spectators signed up, had the type of energy you can imagine at a Friday high school football game in Texas. There’s a sense of community: Nunez served beers to fans in the front row, and fans high-fived the rest after big games. Everyone seemed to know each other and everyone seemed to care about Lobo.

“It’s a poor state and a very proud state where families have lived for generations,” says Grammer. “From a sporting standpoint, when it’s at its best, it’s Lobo basketball and there’s really no second place.”

“Everyone we know doesn’t ask me for tickets because [already] there are season tickets,” adds Pitino. “It’s unique.”

The players are the stars of the state. Allik walked out through the team’s attached practice facility to begin warming up as soon as the doors opened, and was immediately greeted by fans looking for autographs and selfies. Players are recognized in restaurants and in the city. Some kids don’t grow up idolizing their favorite Yankees or cowboys, but their favorite Lobo.

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“I always see a group of kids who have so much energy to play with,” Mashburn says. “Lots of autographs, lots of pictures, lots of autographs and all that stuff.”

When the game starts, the passion becomes palpable. The energy in the building builds up and builds up as momentum builds, then explodes after a big basket or block shot. And the sound seems to be locked inside due to the unique layout of the hall, echoing and leaning on itself at every big performance. Fans know the names of the judges and don’t hide anything by calling them, and even the in-game host at one point told fans to “get back to yelling at the judges” after the unfortunate sequence for Lobo.

Friday’s game wasn’t completely sold out, but you’d never know that while you were there. The pit exploded time after time as the momentum oscillated back and forth before eventually blowing up due to Udeze’s winning layup in the closing seconds of overtime. Pitino, who has coached everywhere from the Cameron Indoor Stadium to the Macchi Arena, called it “the loudest building I’ve ever been in.” Not even close.”

“I didn’t hear myself,” Pitino said after the game. “It was such a nice setting and the loudest crowd I’ve ever seen.”

Lobos guard Donovan Dent dunks in front of the home crowd at The Pit.

Sam Wasson/Getty Images

After last week’s home win against San Jose State, Pitino was about to walk down the tunnel to the locker room when a fan ran from the stands with a gift: a box of Franzia red wine.

“I’m like, ‘How did you get that into the building?'” Pitino laughs. “And then I have to go up the ladder with the wine!”

Pitino’s father, Rick, is well known for his love of wine, though Franzia (a box can be found in grocery stores for less than $15) is unlikely to pique his interest. Perhaps Richard doesn’t like it either, but the box is in the corner of his office and will stand for a while.

“It reminds me of how wonderful this place is,” says Pitino.

Another reminder came the week before when the team was returning to Albuquerque after a road win over favorite Mountain West San Diego State the previous day. The Lobos were greeted at the airport by a contingent of New Mexico fans who showed their support, all dressed in Lobos gear.

“I’m walking without looking up and all of a sudden I see about 15 people with pom-poms,” says Pitino. “I have asked [one of them] – You came to meet us from the plane to the regular season game? and she says, “Yes, keep winning and it will keep getting bigger and bigger.”

“This is a retro place. They just really love it. I have been to many places and truly believe this is one of the best college basketball fan bases.”

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