Lobos and their fans are living big these days
In less than three full seasons, coach Steve Alford has lifted New Mexico back into the national spotlight.
College basketball royalty? No, the Lobos aren't there yet, but at least some of the country's most passionate fans are enjoying the good life again.
``Getting Steve Alford, that was a really good hire,'' said Joe Gonzales of Belen, N.M., who has had season tickets since the mid-1970s. ``He's the best coach we've had in a long time.''
No. 10 New Mexico (26-3, 12-2 Mountain West) is closing on the school's best record - a 28-5 mark in 1995-96 under Dave Bliss, whose teams reached the NCAA tournament seven times in 11 seasons.
The Lobos are back in the Top 10 for the first time since 1997-98. Alford has directed an inexperienced team - just one senior - to not just one 12-game winning streak this season, but two. There have been eight sellouts at The Pit, despite an ongoing $60 million renovation.
There's a love affair growing on the Rio Grande, all right, and it's going strong in both directions. Alford, who left Iowa after the 2006-07 season, is 72-24 during his time in Albuquerque and insists he couldn't be happier.
``We've fallen in love with the community and the institution. It has been a lot of fun,'' said Alford, whose team shared last year's Mountain West title with Utah and BYU.
This time around, the young Lobos were picked fifth in the nine-team conference but opened 12-0 and have won another 12 straight, all league games, after Tuesday's 72-66 victory at Colorado State. They've won nine road games this season and six in a row, both school records.
The community's passion for college basketball started in the 1960s, when former coach Bob King won two Western Athletic Conference titles and took New Mexico to the NCAA tournament once and the National Invitation Tournament three times.
In King's first three seasons, attendance doubled at Johnson Gym. Construction of The Pit began in 1965, and the famed arena opened one year later.
Later, under coach Norm Ellenberger, New Mexico reached the NCAA tournament twice. With Michael Cooper in the lineup in 1977-78, the Lobos held a No. 5 national ranking when they infamously lost to Cal State Fullerton in the NCAA's first round.
After a 13-year break, Bliss got New Mexico back into the NCAA tournament with Australian center Luc Longley in 1991. The Lobos of the Kenny Thomas era made an unprecedented four straight NCAA trips from 1996-99. Coach Ritchie McKay's squad, led by Danny Granger, reached the NCAAs again in 2005.
After a five-year absence, the Lobos should be heading back.
``It's all about what seed they're going to have,'' Wyoming coach Heath Schroyer said after his team lost 83-61 at The Pit last week. ``If they can get a good seed, they can make a run in the tournament. They guard you really well and they can really shoot the ball.''
Mary Metzgar of Albuquerque counts herself among the Lobo faithful. A season-ticket holder since 1970, she said Alford's background as a player on Indiana's 1987 NCAA title squad and his coaching experience in the Big Ten has boosted the Lobos.
``I'm optimistic they can go farther than any other Lobo team,'' she said. ``I think they believe in themselves, and that's why I believe they can win. We have a coach who played the game, and he knows how to motivate the team.''
New Mexico is balanced, with scoring threats in point guard Dairese Gary, playmaker Darington Hobson and sharpshooters Roman Martinez and Phillip McDonald.
``If you take away one thing, we have something else that can hurt you. We have a lot of weapons and we play so unselfishly,'' said Hobson, a junior college transfer who could become the first player to lead New Mexico in points, rebounds and assists in a season.
The Lobos have been resilient, too, winning twice in overtime and going to the wire against last-place Air Force last weekend for a 59-56 victory.
Alford admits his team isn't dominant. Still, he marvels at its will to win.
``Sometimes, you've just got to take your hat off to the team you're playing,'' he said after beating Air Force. ``We've got a lot going on right now. This program has had a lot thrown at them. To win championships, to have special years, you have to be able to win games like that.''
The Lobos are 6-0 in games decided by three points or less. And under Alford, they've become tougher on the road, going 23-15 in three seasons compared with a 22-72 road record in nine previous seasons under Bliss, Fran Fraschilla and McKay.
It's enough to make fans like Matthew Chavez of Albuquerque dream big. He believes the Lobos must beat a team like Kansas or Duke before they can consider themselves a national program, but he's hopeful there might be a chance in the postseason.
Chavez pointed to New Mexico's 5-0 record against ranked opponents. The Lobos also have seven wins over teams in the Top 50 of the RPI, tied with Georgetown, Syracuse and Temple for third most in the nation behind Kansas (9) and Duke (8).
``They have proven they can hang with some of the big boys,'' Chavez said.