Stevens: Alford Takes UNM To New Levels, But No Sweet 16 Trip
June 22, 2013
A History of Men's Basketball in The Pit: The keys to The Pit have been turned over to Craig Neal, who enters his first season as UNM's head coach in 2013-14. GoLobos.com has looked back on the previous eras of Pit basketball in a five-part series: 1- 1966-1972; 2- 1972-1988; 3- 1988-1999; 4- 1999-2007; 5- 2007-2013.
Today: 2007-to-Craig Neal
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
The Pit was in need of a lot of things in 2007 as the facility that opened its doors on Dec. 1, 1966 slipped into its 40s. But what University Arena needed more than any face lift was a coach who could return the Lobos to what now looked like the golden days of (Dave) Bliss Ball.
The last two New Mexico hires - Fran Fraschilla and Ritchie McKay - were busts. They didn't get it done on the court and were shown the door as losses mounted and attendance and NCAA trips faded. But despite a decline in attendance, The Pit was still special, still well stocked with warm bodies and was an attractive carrot to dangle in front of any coach.
Still, it was imperative that Paul Krebs, UNM's Vice President of Athletics, did not make a mistake with this hire. He didn't.
If the Steve Alford hire was a curious one, it was only because the coach with the golden resume, the Bob Knight pedigree, the Olympic Gold medal, had not exactly captured the heart of Iowa. Alford had replaced the legendary Dr. Tom Davis and for many Iowa fans Alford had come up short in measurement. There were few broken Iowa hearts when Alford packed up for New Mexico.
For the Lobos, this hire looked good, but then so did the signing of Fran Fraschilla. Alford had a few chinks in his resume from Iowa, particularly with little NCAA success and losing a first-round game as a No. 3 seed. There also was a controversy with a former player that didn't cause much of a stir in Albuquerque, but would later bite Alford when he bolted to UCLA.
There was much to like about Alford. He had the basketball pedigree, the GQ looks and there was no doubt he had learned a lot about D-I basketball building in his tenure at Iowa. He had kicked out a 25-game win season at Iowa, won two Big Ten Tournaments and went 17-0 at home in 2006.
Alford was older, wiser and stepping out of football country and into one of the top sporting arenas in America. It looked like a promising marriage.
Alford came to New Mexico with a 308-183 (63 percent) career mark in 16 years, had reached the postseason 11 times and had eight 20-game win seasons. With McKay, there were plenty of reasons to shake your head in doubt. With Alford, there was really no reason not to nod your head in acceptance. "This is a gold-medal hire," said longtime coach, Tubby Smith.
Alford was energetic, focused and had grown as a basketball coach. But he had some work to do at New Mexico.
One of Alford's first challenges was J.R. Giddens, the talented but egotistical transfer from Kansas, who had never been brought under control by McKay. Alford quickly took a no-nonsense approach to Giddens and the often-disgruntled Lobo wisely listened.
Giddens had a prima donna side to him, but he also was a smart kid and knew that New Mexico - and Alford - might be his last shot for future pro success.
Alford had made it clear that the season of 2007-08 could go on without Giddens, but it also was clear that an in-control Giddens would be a huge impact. The transformation in Giddens was dramatic and probably unexpected by more than a few Lobo observers.
The 6-foot-5 guard from Oklahoma City led UNM to a 24-9 record, was named the Mountain West Co-Player of The Year and was placed on The Associated Press All-American honorable mention list. In the MW's 16-game season, Giddens led the league in scoring (18.3) and rebounding (8.3).
It was a huge year for Giddens and a huge year for Alford. Alford had taken the scraps of McKay's program and produced 24 wins and a trip to the National Invitation Tournament, losing 68-66 at Cal. After his first season, Alford's contract was extended by three years. The Krebs' hire once proclaimed a bad one by a local sportswriter was looking good.
It appeared that UNM was destined to play its 16th straight season without a league title. Instead, the Lobos threw out a shocker. The Lobos - 4-12 in the MW two years back - won their final five games to win the program's first league title in 15 years. It was a five-game run with a lot of drama, but the biggest shocker was rallying from five points down at Colorado State with 13 seconds left to play in regulation.
The Rams were an in-bounds pass away from winning that game, but instead the Lobos escaped with an 81-79 win in double overtime. "I think the most important things for us in winning the title was that we believed it would happen," said UNM center, Daniel Faris. "We had learned how to win."
UNM clinched the title at Laramie with a 74-73 upset of the Cowboys. Tony Danridge scored 29 points and UNM got the winning bucket from Chad Toppert, his only field goal of the game. The Lobos had a title and Alford was MW Coach of the Year, but UNM's 29th postseason trip went in the direction of the NIT.
The season of 2009-10 had some major question marks. The Lobo returned Gary and Martinez, but lost Dandridge, Faris and Toppert. There was some nice filler coming off the bench in A.J. Hardeman and Will Brown, and a talented transfer named Darington Hobson. But there was simply too much youth on this team to expect too much. UNM returned only one senior starter (Martinez) and one junior starter(Gary) from the previous year.
These Lobos rolled out a nice non-conference mark but showed their flaws by opening the Mountain West wars at 0-2. Were the Lobos out of the race after two games?
The Lobos then threw out the most amazing league finish in UNM and MW history. The Lobos rolled out 14 consecutive Mountain West wins (seven on the road), swept Brigham Young and Utah and won the outright title. UNM finished with a school-record 30 wins (30-5) and went into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed and with the nation's No. 8 ranking.
The Lobos marched into NCAA play once again carrying dreams of the Sweet 16 and once again the dreams faded in a second-round loss (82-64) to Washington.
The next three seasons under Alford were more of the same. In 2010-11 a too-young Lobo team rolled out a 20-13 season, twice beat the Jimmer Fredette-led Brigham Young Cougars, and lost 74-67 at Alabama in NIT action.
UNM returned>Drew Gordon and promising sophomore Kendall Williams in 2011-12 and again there was potential in Jamal Fenton, Tony Snell, Phillip McDonald, Chad Adams, Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk. That team took UNM to the Mountain West regular and tournament crowns, 28 wins, and an NCAA ride that took a Final Four Louisville team to end, 59-56.
Alford ended his fifth season at UNM with more wins and a higher winning percentage than any previous Lobo coach over a five-year span. But like all other Lobo coaches, Alford had yet to find a path to the NCAA Sweet 16. It looked like that pattern might end in 2012-13.
In what was to be Alford's final year at UNM, he again took the Lobos to the top of Mountain West basketball - again past teams picked to finish above his Lobos. UNLV and San Diego State were the teams of choice in the Mountain West and they were loaded and good.
But Alford's Lobos raced to 29 wins (14 non-Pit wins), grabbed the MW's regular-season and tournament titles and raced into NCAA play as the No. 3 seed, a seed that tied program records set in 1997 and 2010. It appeared the Lobos were on an NCAA collision course vs. Arizona in the second round, but only the Wildcats made it that far. The Lobos were shocked by Harvard in that school's first ever NCAA win.
Alford, who had recently accepted another contract extension at UNM, then threw out another shocker. He turned in the keys to The Pit in favor of UCLA. In his six seasons at UNM, he had four 24-win seasons, including a 30-win high. He went to the NCAA Tournament in three of his final four seasons. His Lobos proved to be road tough and won six Mountain West championship rings. Alford had a .723 winning percentage in MW play and won 47 road games in six years for a program that had won 43 road games in the previous 13 years.
It's almost impossible to find any flaws in Alford's six-year regime as a Lobo, but like a scorned lover looking back on an ex, sometimes it's best to find a blemish to make the transition easier.
Alford did much for UNM and left it in a better place. But where is that second-round NCAA win? Where is that Sweet 16 finish? And you might lose to Harvard in a physics quiz, but not on the basketball court when you are the No. 3 seed.
Alford said all the right things when he agreed to a contract extension at UNM, but then annoyed more than a few Lobo fans by quickly walking off to UCLA and throwing coach-love at Bruins. If anything, that makes the transition better for the next keeper of The Pit keys: Craig "Noodles" Neal.
Alford left. Neal didn't.
Neal came to New Mexico with Alford from Iowa and Neal was the popular choice to succeed his mentor. Neal has college experience, pro experience and appears to have an Alford-like grip on discipline and honest effort with more of a laid-back New Mexico attitude.
Neal has longer hair, baggier suits and rides a motorcycle. This isn't exactly a Bob King to Norm Ellenberger transition, but there is excitement for this changing of the Pit guard.
Craig Neal loves Lobo basketball. "I think my biggest attribute is my passion," said Neal.
The era of "Noodles" has begun.