Thursday, March 17, 2005

Villanova in the NCAA Tournament - First Round - The Ultimate Guide To Villanova/New Mexico (Part I)

To the Wildcat faithful-

Wondering about the Lobos? Here is Part I of the Ultimate Guide to Villanova vs. New Mexico, in the first round of the NCAA tournament. In this part, we'll descend into the Pit, and explain the Lobos' pitiful nonconference schedule.

If you're like me, unless you've ever had reason to live in the Southwest, probably the only exposure you've had to the Lobos are some late-night Big Monday games on ESPN, seeing the screaming red-clad fans waving signs and watching the Lobos face Utah or Air Force or some other Mountain West opponent at the Pit. Well, here are the basics:

UNM is located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and has an enrollment of 26,500; it actually predates New Mexican statehood by 23 years, as it was established by the Territorial Legislature in 1889 (New Mexico, along with Arizona, were the last two of the 48 continental United States to be granted that status, in 1912.)

Unquestionably, the Lobos' signature aspect as a program - the equivalent of Villanova's 1985 miracle title run - is Bob King Court at "The Pit", located 37 feet lower than street level. Although this game obviously - and fortunately - won't be played there, it's worth examining in some detail because it's impossible to adequately discuss UNM's program without it. UNM's home facility, is in fact one of the most remarkable venues in college basketball. Entirely independently of this game, if I ever had any reason to be in Albuquerque, I definitely would have wanted to stop in and take a look inside, even if there wasn't a game going on.

In June 1999, Sports Illustrated attempted to classify "The Top 20 Sporting Venues in the 20th Century", not just in America, but in the entire world. And the Pit not only qualified for the list, it was #13, ahead of such historically important sites as the Rose Bowl, St. Andrew's Golf Course in Scotland, and Notre Dame Stadium. Among college basketball sites, it rated second only to Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke. (I would take issue with why the Palestra wouldn't be included, or at least in the neighborhood on that list, but never mind.)

It is one of the most historically important venues in America, and probably in the West second only to Pauley Pavilion at UCLA. There are two chief reasons - one is its unique nature as a den of wolves for visitors - one of the toughest in America. The other is the fact that it has been a frequent NCAA tournament host, and can claim the single most dramatic moment in NCAA history (and second-greatest title upset, to Villanova in 1985 :)

namely, the Derek-Whittenburg-to-Lorenzo-Charles pass/dunk, that helped #6 seed NC State shock Houston, then-Akeem Olajuwon and Phi Slamma Jamma in 1983. It gave Jim Valvano, the author of the upset, a permanent place in NCAA lore, and the footage of him giddily wandering around the court in the aftermath is one of the greatest images in NCAA history.

Yep, back then, the Final Four was a sufficiently intimate affair that a city as small as Albuquerque, with a 18,000 seat building, could host it. (Ironically, the popularity engendered by the NC State and Villanova victories ultimately forced the NCAA, during the 1990s, to stipulate that only domes could host it in the future.) Of course, Albuquerque can still host earlier rounds, which it has done seven times, most recently in 2002, and it will be hosting again during this tournament (although of course the Lobos can't play there).

It is unquestionably one of the most difficult home courts for visiting teams in America - and it arguably is THE toughest. The numbers bear that out. New Mexico has an .802 winning percentage in the building during its 39 years of existence. This year, the Lobos went 18-1 there. That might not sound like a big deal; Villanova's winning percentage in the Pavilion is almost as high; entering the season it was .763. But Villanova has a strong home-court advantage as well, and the numbers are also a bit skewed because so many of the toughest opponents have been played in South Philly. And the Pit has been there for 39 years, almost twice as long for the Pavilion. (And until the 1990s, New Mexico had received only two NCAA bids in school history.)

Why is the Pit so tough?

Well, for one thing, it's incredibly loud. During the 1998-99 season, a St. Petersburg Times reporter attempted to determine conclusively which building in America was the loudest, and he deemed the Pit worthy of the ranking, recording a 118-decibel reading there for a game between the Lobos and Arizona. According to his research, it was higher than Cameron Indoor Stadium for Duke/North Carolina, higher than Allen Field House for Kansas/Iowa, higher than Assembly Hall for Indiana/Purdue (although I don't know if the guy visited the Palestra in Philadelphia during that tour).

The decibel levels is attributable, not just to the location 37 feet below street level, but also the Lobos' incredibly large and loyal following, one of the best fan bases in the country. UNM hasn't fallen out of the top 15 nationally in attendance since 1967, and in all but three of those years they were in the top 10. Attendance is over the 10 million mark (the 10 millionth fan was honored in 2002). They have averaged 15,755 fans per game over a 38-year span, 95% of capacity. Remember, that as we shall see later in this article, the vast majority of these games are not being scheduled against marquee teams like UCLA and North Carolina - to say the least. And they're still AVERAGING 15,000+ every night. Regardless of how good the Lobos are that year. In a small metropolitan area. (Albuquerque is booming - it has over 700,000 residents now, over 100,000 of whom have arrived since 1990 - but it doesn't have a huge suburban area surrounding it. It's not a big metropolitan area.)

What does all of this mean? Well, basically, that if you were an opposing coach you'd be insane to schedule the Lobos if you had to go there for a home-and-home series. Nobody wants to play them on that basis. And as a result, New Mexico suffers from perpetual schedule sclerosis, often logging very weak OOC schedules just to find opponents. Nor can it simply pack up and hit the road. Programs at this level want to play home-and-home, and UNM isn't going to simply agree to go on the road without a return game.

So every year, UNM's schedule is loaded with home cupcakes and lots of cholesterol. The only teams willing to go there, usually, are ones that need the guarantee money and are willing to take a thrashing to get it. (A "guarantee game", the generally accepted euphemism for "cupcake", is a game in which the little school agrees to waive a return game from the big school and usually agrees that the game be officiated by officials from the big school's own conference. In exchange for these concessions, the little school gets a wad of cash from the gate receipts, which it uses to fund its athletic program.)

One clear sign of this pattern: we all know that Villanova's cupcake opponents come generally from the East Coast, because of the ease of travel and lack of expense. Most are a short bus ride away, in New York, New Jersey, or New England. You'll notice that, in contrast, many of the teams UNM plays out-of-conference come from NOWHERE near Albuquerque. Traditionally, they play a rare home-and-home, out-of-conference series with New Mexico State, in the same season, every year, which is fortunate because that eats up another spot on the schedule. Basically, UNM has to go farther and farther away from the Southwest just to get someone to agree to fly in to accept their thrashing - probably programs that aren't aware (or indifferent) to the terrors of the Pit. (And it probably has to up the guarantee money to get them to agree to it, because of the increased cost of the trip.)

Usually, over the last 15 years, this killer home-court advantage - given that all of its Mountain West brethren have to come there every year whether they like it or not - is enough to get the Lobos into the NCAA mix, if not always a bid.

Let's look at the season as a whole, now. New Mexico completed its season with a 26-6 overall record, 10-4 in the eight-team Mountain West Conference. (I grow nostalgic thinking about the idea of playing in an eight-team conference where you play everyone twice and develop genuine rivalries and familiarity with the opponents... Ah, the good ol' days of the nine-team Big East...) Their final RPI rating was #67.

They finished second in the Mountain West regular season to Utah, which finished 13-1, the Utes' sole loss coming to the Lobos on Feb. 21 at the Pit, when the Runnin' Utes were ranked #13. Late Saturday night in the East, New Mexico defeated the Runnin' Utes in the tournament final to capture the Mountain West's automatic bid; all tournament games were played at a true neutral court in Denver. The game meant a lot more to the Lobos, who were not guaranteed a bid - whereas the Utes were a lock regardless of the conference tournament. Utah and New Mexico were the only two Mountain West teams to be under NCAA consideration and accordingly the only two to receive bids.

When I did my bubble analysis, I felt that New Mexico had assured of an at-large bid just by reaching the final, but in retrospect that probably wasn't correct. New Mexico, despite BEATING Utah in the final, only ended up with a 12 seed, on a par with the lowest at-large bids. And so it seems reasonable to think that if the Lobos had lost that game, they were certainly on the bubble (although they still might have gotten in, given the weak performances of many other bubble teams.)

The reason why UNM needed the MWC tournament run, was its typical exceptionally, exceptionally, exceptionally, weak out-of-conference schedule. The Lobos played only two other teams that qualified for the NCAA tournament: Utah (three times) and Wake Forest. How weak was the schedule? Jerry Palm rated it 227th in the nation on; Villanova's, in contrast, was 9th. An analysis:

The Lobos opened their season by hosting the NABC Classic, a round-robin tournament with all four teams playing each other once, and with very weak opponents (about as weak as you can get, frankly). Not surprisingly, the Lobos won their own tournament. They opened with North Carolina A&T, whom they beat by 16. (NC A&T finished 6-24 and with a RPI of 312.) They leveled Santa Clara, an average West Coast Conference team, by 34 (Santa Clara ended up 14-16 and #132). And they got past woeful Duquesne, 82-74, in the final (the Atlantic 10 Dukes, who sported ultimately a 8-22 record and #259 rating) . Then they returned home to the Pit and flattened a non-Division I opponent, Western New Mexico, by 40. Four victories, but none, obviously, that would really help them.

The Lobos then embarked on the bulk of their nonconference schedule. They traveled to Oregon, a Pac-10 squad but one which had a dreadful season, and lost by four. The Ducks, who were in the Final Four earlier in the 21st century, quacked to only a 14-13 mark overall, 6-12 Pac-10, and #81 RPI this season. The Lobos ripped off six consecutive victories against middling competition, after that setback. They swept a four-day, home-and-home series with arch-rival New Mexico State, winning one game by 18, one by 19. Some of you may remember the early '90s, when New Mexico State was actually pretty good. Well, those days are over. NMSU had a 4-24 record and # 292 rating. The Lobos then devoured two more tissue-paper teams, Northern Colorado (4-21, #298) and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (5-21, # 311).

At this point, bear in mind it is December 12 and they have already played ten games, and they're 9-1. However, no fewer than EIGHT of those games were against seven opponents are among the worst, worst, worst dregs that Division I basketball had to offer in America this season. The only "good" team they played, Oregon, beat them, and the Lobos massacred the only mediocre one, Santa Clara.

Having sufficiently tuned up, the Lobos then battled against some decent competition, Tennessee and #5 Wake Forest, both at the Pit. The Lobos soundly beat Tennessee by 19, on Dec. 19, and were in turned soundly beaten by Wake, 81-64, on Dec. 22.

After Christmas, the Lobos hosted another holiday tournament, this one styled the "Comcast Lobo Invitational". This one was not round-robin, there were just two games per team. Mississippi Valley State was scheduled to face the hosts; at 13-15, 249, this was actually one of the Lobos' more formidable OOC opponents, as incredible as that sounds. The Lobos flattened Jerry Rice's alma mater, 101-68. The Lobos then sacked Troy (11-18, 219) to win their own tournament yet again. (The Lobos missed out on Pepperdine, the other participant).

Unlike Villanova, New Mexico did not have nonconference games scheduled throughout the year; theirs ended on Jan. 3. They played their third and final road nonconference game at Texas-Arlington (9-15, #272) and won, 64-55. So entering Mountain West play in January, the Lobos had a glittering 13-2 record, albeit one achieved against one of the worst schedules in Christendom. (If #5 Wake Forest hadn't been on it, it might very well have been THE worse.)

In the next part, there will be still more discussion of the New Mexico Lobos and what you can expect in Friday's game... More to come!!!

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