Where we left off, UNM had completed its nonconference slate with an impressive 13-2 record. I detailed in great length about UNM's home court, the Pit, and the advantages it confers. Clearly, New Mexico does not enjoy being away from it. Over the last two seasons, the Lobos endured a 27 game road losing streak, and if you are sufficiently harsh as to count neutral courts, it was 29 games. Those are not typos. Twenty-seven road losses in a row, twenty-nine road/neutral losses in a row. The victory at New Mexico State on Dec. 4 snapped the streaks at 27 and 29. When the Lobos won at Texas-Arlington, it was the first time that they had won consecutive games on the road since the 2000-01 season.
Nonetheless, there was some reason for optimism as conference play started. The two losses, at Oregon and a rare home loss to #5 Wake Forest, had both been close. At Oregon, the Lobos had been ahead at halftime and trailed by only two with 16 seconds left, before losing by four. Against Wake, a much better team, the Lobos were still in the game pretty late, down by only seven with 8:23 to play, before the Demon Deacons turned on the jets and won by 17.
Then the season began, and Danny Granger, the team's best player, injured his knee in the first half against Wyoming at the Pit in the MWC opener on Jan. 3. The Lobos held onto to win, but lost the next three without him - although since they were all on the road, they might very well have lost them whether he was there or not... (Granger had also had shoulder surgery over the summer.) The Lobos were pretty much resigned to a NIT with a 14-5 record, 1-3 in conference, and without their best player.
After undergoing arthroscopic surgery on Jan. 10, Granger returned and the Lobos suddenly became virtually unstoppable. Since Granger came back on Jan. 29, they've only lost one game, at Wyoming on Feb. 7. Overall, New Mexico is 26-3 with Granger. Another contributing factor may have been the shifting of guard Mark Walters to the point at the same time; it was an involuntary move, forced by the fact that Kris Collins, the junior starter, broke his foot on Jan. 26 and is out for the season. Despite their ineptitude on the road the last couple of seasons, they managed to go 3-4 on the road in the MWC, although all three wins were against the four teams in the bottom half.
And of course, all three of the conference tournament victories were on a neutral court in Denver. It was New Mexico's first MWC title, and its first tournament championship since it won the Western Athletic Conference tournament in 1996, under coach Dave Bliss. (The Mountain West was created as the result of a secession movement by some WAC schools.) So after failing to win 29 straight times on road-neutral floors, the Lobos managed to go 6-4 on them in the MWC this season, a strong step forward. They also managed to beat #15 Utah on one, one of the rare occasions when UNM has beaten someone good away from the Pit.
New Mexico actually illustrates pretty well the competing interests that the NCAA Selection Committee has to take into account when offering at-large bids and seeding. UNM was white-hot, arguably the hottest team in the country. It had only one loss since Jan. 24 while playing in a decent conference, and no losses since Feb. 7. UNM also had a good record in that conference (coming in second at 10-4) and had won two out of three from the top team in the conference, Utah. And it had 26 victories. All of those things add up to a good seed.
The Feb. 21 victory over Utah at the Pit, was the highlight of the season, as it ended a streak of 18 consecutive victories for the #13 Runnin' Utes. Although it did set the UNM athletic department back a few bucks. According to the New Mexico's sports information department, which expressed this story quite eloquently:
"Several enthusiastic Lobo fans painted their faces and bodies red in an effort to show support. Some of those same fans rushed the court after the game to celebrate with their Lobo heroes. The combination of body art and sweat resulted in permanent stains to the white uniforms. Still waiting on the new togs, New Mexico had to wear its red road uniforms in the final home game against Colorado State. UNM had new uniforms for the MWC Tournament."
Of course, the SC also loves strength of schedule. And this year, it was a double whammy, because the "new RPI" added the reward for road victories (which the Lobos are notorious for not having) and increased the penalty for home losses (which didn't hurt them as much, because their only home loss all year was to Wake). So despite 25 Division I victories - including nine consecutive to end the season - the horrible strength of schedule was only enough to get them a 12 seed, and had they not taken the automatic bid, very possibly out of the tournament entirely.
So how did coach Ritchie McKay pull off this feat? He's an interesting case...
He's only 39, and UNM is already his fourth Division I head coaching job. (I don't know if that's a record for someone under 40 but it has to be pretty close). McKay actually grew up with New Mexico roots and was a huge New Mexico fan, because his father had played for the Lobos in the early 1960s. (Although, unfortunately, his late father never got the chance to see his son become head coach in Albuquerque.) He attended his first collegiate game in 1978, an NCAA tournament game between the Lobos and Cal State-Fullerton.
After graduating from Seattle Pacific in 1987, where he was a star player, McKay began an odyssey as an assistant which took him all over the map during the next eight years:
the University of Washington; Queens College in North Carolina; back to his alma mater of Seattle Pacific; Bradley (ironically, the school from which Granger would transfer a decade later); and then back to Washington.
McKay would then take three successive head coaching jobs and spend exactly two years at each one (the streak is broken now because this is his third year at New Mexico).
Prior to the 1996-97 season, McKay was hired at Portland State (no, not the team that Villanova had pulverized in the NCAA tournament's first round the previous season, in a #3-#14 game, 92-58. That was Portland. But worth mentioning: Howard Brown, a freshman playing during garbage time, had a dunk off a lob pass, probably from fellow freshman John Celestand, in which he appeared to have his feet standing on the rim before he brought it home.) McKay spent three years there, although he only officially coached two. Portland State had dropped basketball 15 years earlier and he spent his first year there laying the groundwork for reviving it. He had some success: while his first team went 9-17, his second improved to 15-12, and he parlayed that into the position at Colorado State.
After two successful years there, including a NIT, McKay parlayed that into a Pac-10 slot at Oregon State, one of the doormats of the conference. Here is where the story gets interesting. McKay apparently did a fantastic job rebuilding the program, as he was really popular in Corvallis. Although he didn't have success, as measured in wins and losses. He arrived in 2000-01, went 10-20 (4-14) and finished tied for 9th in a 10-team league. No big deal, he was coaching OSU with his predecessor's players. In 2002, though, he went 12-17 (4-14 again), finishing 9th again.
Generally a coach with back-to-back 4-14 seasons - even if they are really the fault of his predecessor - would not be able to use that record as a springboard to move UP the coaching pyramid, but McKay somehow managed to do it. New Mexico even paid Oregon State $225,000 to buy out his contract. Although Oregon State is in the Pac-10, it's at the bottom of the Pac-10 (notwithstanding their decent season this year). Given the choice, I'd much prefer the top of the Mountain West in New Mexico, in a sold-out building every night, with much better weather, at your father's alma mater and your childhood team: well, that's moving up in the world. (And probably more money.) Clearly, he was well liked in Corvallis: Oregon State's AD publicly stated how sorry he was to see McKay depart and about the solid foundation he had laid at OSU. Which has likely been borne out, because the players McKay was recruiting are probably the ones that OSU is winning with today.
Of course, New Mexico may have been starting to get desperate. Fran Fraschilla, whom we all remember from his messy exit from St. John's, had just gotten the ax after three mediocre years, all resulting in NIT bids. McKay was actually New Mexico's FIFTH choice for the helm. The hot name at the time for New Mexico was Rob Evans of Arizona State, who had played at New Mexico State, but the deal couldn't be worked out.
At any rate, the complicated courtship has worked out for both sides. Fraschilla left an absolute disaster in his wake: during his three years, no fewer than nine scholarship players departed, some according to the Daily Lobo (great name for a newspaper, by the way :) "accusing Fraschilla of mistreating them." Not surprisingly, McKay's first year ('02-03) was pretty rough, as the team went just 10-18 - the Lobos' worst record in 23 years and one in which they failed to win a single road game. But last year, they improved to 14-14, and this year, the Lobos exploded, going 26-6 (a 16 win improvement in two seasons).
Clearly the key to this sudden turnaround, was the recruitment (or larceny, depending on one's perspective) of Granger from Bradley in January 2003. The credit for the coup apparently rests with current Lobos assistant Duane Broussard, who had been the Bradley assistant who had originally recruited Granger to Peoria. (VU connection: Broussard was at Bradley, during the 1995-96 season, when the notorious fight took place between Wildcat Jason Lawson and a Bradley player.) Granger's transfer came as a result of, as is so often the case, a coaching change: Jim Les took over at Bradley after the previous coach, Jim Molinari, was fired, and Broussard, with whom Granger is close, departed along with him. Not coincidentally, one of McKay's odyssey stops had been going to Italy in 1997 under Molinari, as an assistant when Molinari was the U.S. head coach for the World University Games. And McKay had also been an assistant at Bradley himself.
Granger was a junior and would have only three semesters of eligibility if he transferred. However, Bradley didn't back down quietly. Which isn't surprising, because when he left, he was their best player, averaging over 19 points, 8 boards, and 1.5 blocks a game, leading the Braves in all those categories. The school accused New Mexico of tampering with Granger in violation of NCAA regulations; it's impermissible for a school to contact another school's player without written permission. Ultimately, Bradley refused to release Granger from his scholarship commitment, thus forcing Granger to pay his own way at UNM for two semesters. (Don't shed any tears for him; he'll be doing OK in the NBA.)
McKay denied any wrongdoing, stating that "he would take any consequences" if they were in the wrong. As it turned out, both sides had valid points. In July 2003, the NCAA stepped in and ruled that the transfer was allowed, but found Broussard guilty of "secondary violations" regarding contacting a recruit. New Mexico had reported it in March, the NCAA issued a wrist-slap penalty, though: two days lost recruiting and no recruiting for Broussard for a month.
Granger has unquestionably been worth the wait and the NCAA brouhaha for the Lobos. He's only played at UNM for a year and a half, in which he missed three games, and he already has 18 double-doubles, scoring 20+ points 23 times. (He's only been one rebound short of six other double-doubles.) If he scores 21 points in this NCAA tournament, he'll have scored 1,000 points at New Mexico in just three semesters. He leads the team in scoring, rebounding, steals, and blocks, a true Renaissance man of the hardwood. As Dick Vitale is wont to say, he can do it all.
Within the MWC, he's second in scoring, steals, and blocks, third in rebounding, fourth in three-pointers. He carried the Lobos to the conference tournament crown, being named tourney MVP after upping his averages to 24 pts/11 rebounds/3 blocks/3.7 assists in the tournament.
Although- as we shall see- lack of success outside of the Pit, or Bradley's complaints about tampering over the Granger episode, are unquestionably the least of the problems that McKay has faced, since he came home to New Mexico in the spring of 2002. The first major problem involved an unfortunate fellow named Patrick Dennehy, whom McKay had inherited from Fraschilla. During an off-season workout after McKay arrived in Albuquerque, Dennehy walked out on practice and McKay booted him off the team. Dennehy opted to transfer to Baylor, and he sat out the 2002-03 season at Baylor, preparing to join the team.
In November 2002, senior team captain Senque Carey was temporarily paralyzed, after a freak spinal-cord injury resulting from his taking a charge, during McKay's second game as head coach, against Northwestern State at the Pit. Fortunately, he made a full recovery, but the injury ended his basketball career, and Carey is now an assistant at Portland State. Sean Phaler, now a Lobo freshman, was nearly killed in a car accident while being recruited.
But in June 2003, Dennehy vanished, and his SUV was found in Virginia Beach with the plates removed. His body was found weeks later outside Waco, Texas. (A Baylor teammate, Carlton Dotson, was charged with the murder; in October 2004, a Texas judge ruled that Dotson be sent to a mental hospital for treatment before he could stand trial. In February 2005, Dotson was returned to jail in Texas after being deemed competent to stand trial, and he could be tried as early as May, according to prosecutors.)
Then two months later, in August 2003, sophomore forward Billy Feeney, a transfer from Portland who had been expected to start for the team and had a long, bright future ahead of him at age 19 or so, tragically committed suicide. So in a two month span, two players connected to McKay were both dead, and the deaths were unrelated. Another player was almost killed and still another was almost paralyzed.
As if all this weren't enough, the "Architect of Lobo Basketball", long-time coach Bob King (for whom King Court at the Pit was named in 1992) died on Dec. 10, 2004 at the age of 81. King had arrived as the coach, when McKay's father was playing for the Lobos in 1962. King's success with the Lobos actually was the catalyst for the Pit's construction in 1966, as the previous building was too small to accommodate the burgeoning crowds. Prior to King's arrival, the Lobos had never qualified for a postseason tournament, and now they have 27 appearances, counting this year. The "BK" patches you'll see on the Lobos' jerseys on Friday are to commemorate King's passing.
Obviously, McKay has had a lot on his plate, as he strove to rebuild the program after Fraschilla's tenure, which would have been challenging enough even under normal conditions. But he's done an admirable job of it, especially under such trying circumstances.
McKay also lost some players he inherited, although since there are vague references to players who didn't see eye to eye with the new regime, I doubt they were missed. Two holdover sophomores transferred after his first year, leaving more holes. To help patch up the ship, McKay has relied heavily on transfers: in addition to Granger and and the late Feeney, senior Troy DeVries is a transfer from Portland State, one of McKay's old gigs. Also, Kris Collins, the junior starting point guard, and Alfred Neale, a senior, are junior-college transfers. (You won't see the injured Collins, as mentioned above.) Whether such quick-fixes (five transfers are quite a few for such a short tenure) are good for a program's stability over the long-term remains to be seen, but McKay seems to be doing fine so far.
This year, the Lobos have overachieved, clearly. Preseason expectations were not high for the team, which wasn't planning a NCAA trip this week. This was perfectly logical. New Mexico hadn't qualified for the NCAA tournament since 1999. The two previous seasons hadn't yielded any NITs, either. And all of the turmoil and tragedy didn't help matters. The Mountain West preseason poll tabbed the Lobos just fourth out of the eight teams, behind UNLV (which finished in a fourth place tie at 7-7, ironically), Utah, and Air Force. And fourth place in the MWC means NIT, at best. Especially, when you haven't won a road game in 27 tries, and nobody good will come to your house and play.
Breaking down the Lobos:
McKay's personnel, as chronicled above, are a crazy-quilt of minutes and scoring averages. None of the five starters average more than 30.8 minutes a game, and nobody on the team has fewer than 4.2. I would guess that this haphazardness is primarily due to the hideous chaos that has plagued the program, rather than the way McKay planned it. (Although some coaches like to use a lot of players, so it's possible it's just his style.) When half the players on the team are transfers, some guys are practicing without playing, and all sorts of odd combinations are probably tried out over the months. The abolition of the 5/8 rule dammed up some of McKay's losses, because he was able to add five players last year.
All five of the starters average over double figures in scoring, reflecting unselfish play and good teamwork. All five received at least Honorable Mention by the MWC, and three were named all-conference (one first-team, two third-team.) The way it seems to have evolved recently is that McKay will use a seven-man rotation and mix in the other six healthy players here and there. All the starters other than David Chiotti are legitimate three-point threats, with three of them over 40% and all over 38.5%.
#33 Danny Granger, 6-8, forward, senior, 19.0 ppg, 8.8rpg - Already discussed in detail. In addition to his other talents, an outstanding foul shooter for a forward, 75.8%. And he exploits this fact effectively by getting to the line a lot: he averages over 6 FTs a game. He will be a first-round NBA draft pick, and his stock can soar higher with a strong performance in the tournament. Two-time first-team All-MWC.
#21 Alfred Neale, 6-6, forward, senior, 10.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg - One of McKay's patches, Neale came up big in the MWC tournament, scoring 41 points in three games. He was an accomplished high jumper in junior college. So expect him to take the tip...
Also a dangerous three-point shooter, averaging 40.6%, and he takes a lot of them (he has 56 triples this year). Explosive and athletic crowd-pleasing dunker at the Pit, with a penchant for drawing charges.
#13 David Chiotti (say it KEY-OH-TI), 6-9, forward, junior, 10.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg - In an interesting quirk, was the back-to-back winner of the Lobos' Most Improved Player award, in each of his first two years in Albuquerque. Usually, that sort of award doesn't pull a Tom Hanks, and so Chiotti must either be really awesome by now or have been genuinely dreadful when he got there. Or some combination of the two. (Perhaps if he develops a three-point shot this offseason, he can go for the three-peat.) Injured his hip flexor in the same game that Granger got hurt in January. Went to the same San Jose, CA high school as Dennehy and Carey.
Described as a "tough post player who visibly got stronger in the offseason". Seems to be a decent frontcourter, as he was named third-team All-Mountain West this year. For a guy probably forced to guard bigger players at the "five", he does a great job at staying out of foul trouble, averaging just over two a game. He starts every game, but he averages only 27 minutes, which make his scoring and rebounding numbers more impressive. McKay played him more in the last two games of the MWC tourney, so we might see more of him.
#5 Mark Walters, 6-2, guard, junior, 10.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg - good rebounder for a point guard. Team has hummed since he moved to point. Was awesome in MWC tournament, with 18 assists and only three turnovers. Good clutch free-throw shooter (17-20 in final three minutes of MWC games). 74% FT shooter overall.
#2 Troy DeVries (rhymes with "a breeze", 6-4, guard, senior, 11.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg - The most accurate three-point shooter in New Mexico's history, he hits at a phenomenal 46.1% clip. He also is the most accurate three-point shooter in the MWC's short history. Don't leave him open. Also named third-team All-Mountain West.
Weakness: For a guard, especially one with an exceptional three-point shot, he is an atrocious free throw shooter, averaging just 53.2% this season. And the percentage has dropped every year he's been in college. (When he was at Portland State he was pretty good at it.)
Off the Bench:
#32 Tony Danridge, 6-5, guard/forward, freshman, 3.1 ppg, 1.0 rpg - He's the one bench player who consistently sees significant time, averaging 12.1 minutes. In the MWC tournament, he scored 18 points in 44 minutes off the bench.
#20 Ryan Wall, 6-0, guard, sophomore, 1.2 ppg, 0.6 rpg- Spare guard who will probably come in to give Walters a breather at the point, as his minutes climbed sharply after Collins broke his foot and ended his season. Offensive threat is nil: only scored 29 points this year and 12 were in a single game.
None of the other bench players are worth profiling in detail, as they won't play much unless someone gets hurt.
Villanova has to hope that Granger scores only 21 points or so and try to shut down everyone else. It will be a showdown between the juggernaut Lobo offense and the stingy Villanova defense. The Lobos are lethal shooters, both overall (50%) and from beyond the arc (40%), numbers good enough to get them into the national rankings in both categories.
Something to chew on if the game gets tight down the stretch: New Mexico has only had four games the entire year, which were decided by five points or less, and they split the four contests.
Fun facts on the Wildcats/Lobos:
Not surprisingly, given the teams' divergence in scheduling power, the teams did not face a single common opponent this year.
New Mexico hasn't played in Nashville since 1956.
New Mexico's official colors are Cherry and Silver. (Coincidentally, Temple's are Cherry and White.)
Villanova and New Mexico have never faced each other. However, surprisingly for a Southwest team, New Mexico's basketball tradition actually outdates Villanova's. The first UNM game was on Groundhog Day 1900, when the Lobos lost a 8-6 shootout to the Albuquerque Guards. However, New Mexico has not fielded a team continuously since then. Villanova began play in 1920-21, continuously. The Lobos have been continuously fielding a squad since 1921-22.The game will be called by the outstanding CBS broadcast crew of Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery. It will tip approximately 30 minutes after the conclusion of the first game in the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville, Tennessee. That game will involve #4 Florida, tournament champions of the SEC, against #13 Ohio U., tournament champions of the MAC, and is scheduled to tip at 12:25 PM EST (11:25 AM in Nashville). If the Wildcats win, they would move on to face the winner of Florida/Ohio U. on Sunday.