ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Craig Neal believes you will come. He believes you will arrive at the appointed hour, at the holy below-the-ground site we have chosen to call the Pit.
Sure, right now you’re whining about the schedule. But this is Lobo basketball and you will come as you always have (well, except for those latter Ritchie McKay years and a portion of the Fran Fraschlla era).
Meanwhile, Yvonne Sanchez hopes you will come. Tickets are lower. Parking is free.
Neal’s program has expectations, despite a loss of important talent. Sanchez is in desperate times. Win or be fired, seems to be the sentiment.
Neal complains last year’s tough schedule only got him a measly No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Sanchez’s program, plagued by near misses, ghastly injuries and underwhelming play, would love to be anywhere near the dance.
Perhaps that explains why Neal is giving us Idaho State. The Bengals (or is it the Vandals?) once beat a UCLA team that had eight future NBA players on it. Unfortunately that was 1977.
Perhaps that’s why Sanchez is giving us Stanford. That program has been to 12 Final Fours and won two national championships. What does UNM have to lose?
On the men’s side Cal State Fullerton is coming. At long last the Lobos have a chance for revenge against those Titans and that scrawny, goggle-eyed, sharp-shooting Kevin Heenan. For you youngsters and transplants, that’s the group that took down Michael Cooper & company in 1978.
On the women’s side, Sanchez will be sent as lambs to the lions of Texas A&M, a school that has been to three Elite Eights since 2008.
The men bring us Valparaiso (remember Bryce Drew and the Sweet 16 run of 1998?) and a trip to Grand Canyon (not to The Grand Canyon) to take on Thunder Dan Majerle.
The women visit the Longhorns of Texas, a program with four Final Fours in its history.
Central Arkansas’ men’s team has a new coach in Russ Pennell, the only known man to have played for the UCA Bears and coached the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. (It also adds to UNM’s Central history – Central Missouri State, Central Oklahoma and Central Florida have already made the list. Is Central Connecticut State on the horizon?)
We also get a visit from Louisiana Monroe, a team that came within 80-63 of Kansas last year in Lawrence. Coincidentally, UNM came within 80-63 of Kansas last year.
The UNM women counter with a game against DePaul, which has made 12 straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
But any basketball coach who has passed Media 101 can tell you it’s not what happens in November and December that counts. It’s all about March, when teams like the Cliff Cowboys visit the Pit, as the Lobo faithful migrate to the shiny lights of Vegas.
Neal is counting on you forgetting about all that preseason wringing of hands. By March, he expects his Lobos to be knocking on the NCAA’s door as always. Maybe they will carry a lofty record and the committee will forget the soft base it will stand on.
Maybe UCA, ULM and GCU will be the surprise of the nation.
Or maybe the Lobos will be only NIT-worthy. Maybe Cullen Neal won’t take the next step in his development. Maybe junior college All-American Jordan Goodman, who is coming off a knee injury, won’t live up to his name or hype.
And maybe Craig Neal figured all along this would be a lean year and will wait to fight the big boys another season.
For Sanchez, it is also about March. The Lobo women, no matter the regular season, could be counted on being heard above the din of the slot machines at the annual conference gathering.
Perhaps her Lobos will gain from their Italian adventure and later their tour of Texas. Perhaps experiencing Stanford up close, in the Pit, will give them confidence when it is San Diego State or Wyoming they must beat.
Maybe it will be the women’s NCAA Tournament seedings we will be concerned with while we wonder if the Lobo men are good enough to reach Madison Square Garden in that other tournament.
Then, again, maybe we will have to test our newly discovered interest in soccer. The Lobo men not only play nationally ranked teams, they are one of them.