(Note: This version of the story corrects details about the opener in 1975-76, which UNM won at Colorado.)
NORTHRIDGE, Calif. — College basketball is here.
Well, not in Albuquerque, but it is back, tipping off around the country Tuesday night.
And if the fact that the college hoops calendar is beginning and the University of New Mexico Lobos won’t be at home at Dreamstyle Arena – The Pit seems a little odd, you’re right.
The Lobos, who play at Cal State-Northridge at 8 p.m. Tuesday, haven’t started the season anywhere but 37-feet below New Mexico soil in more than a decade (a 2007 win over Colorado in Boulder). In fact, in the 53-year existence of the Pit, the Lobos have opened the season in a gym other than their own just eight times, going 5-1 in true road games (it won 78-75 at Colorado in 1975 to start the 1975-76 season but lost there 86-78 in a return visit in 1979) and 1-1 starting the season on neutral courts (a win in a Hawaii tournament to start the 1986-87 season and a loss in an Alaska tournament to start the 1983-84 season).
So, why now? Why would the Lobos, in Paul Weir’s second season, be hitting the road to start a season with so much buzz building around it?
There are a few reasons.
“Last year, it was Jan. 17 at UNLV, that was our first road win,” Weir said. “So it was obviously a really long haul of road games throughout November, December and January. This is an opportunity for us to go on the road and start our season off the way we would like and get that — not that it’s a monkey on our back (last season), but I think it became one for us last year. We just couldn’t find a way to get a win on the road.”
The Lobos did lose their first eight games away from the Pit in the 2017-18 season before a borderline miracle finish, thanks to a pair of improbable Anthony Mathis 3-pointers, got them off the hook in the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nev., on Jan. 17.
While Weir says the CSUN game is, in part, to give his team an early chance to get accustomed to the road and, he hopes, get that first win out of the way, the larger reality of the schedule is that Weir likely wasn’t going to play at all on opening night had CSUN not approached him about a two-year, home-and-home series that will feature the Matadors playing in the Pit next season.
Between the uniqueness of this being the first time the NCAA is opening a season on a Tuesday night coupled with this particular Tuesday night being a rather highly anticipated election night, Weir wasn’t exactly high on the idea of trying to set the tone for the season’s home schedule with a potentially lightly attended game.
But aside from the hope that the Lobos get that first road win off the board, Weir also knows that the larger pressure on his program in Year 2 is to get off to a better start to the season in general than last season. That means there are no tune-up games before the season begins for the coach to get in more evaluation time of his largely new roster (never mind the fact that this Saturday is an oddly timed in-season exhibition game in the Pit against Northern New Mexico).
“When you’re in the position we’re in right now, our season needs to get off to a good start,” Weir said, referencing last season’s 3-8 start to the season, 2-8 vs. Division I teams. “It didn’t last year. Quite frankly, we were not very good in November and December. Whether that was Tennessee Tech, whether that was UTEP, whether that was New Mexico State, whoever those games happened to be, we were an easy win in those times. We were not anywhere near the level we should have been.
“I’m glad the season turned. I’m glad we finished on a high note. But that doesn’t erase how we were in November and December and we can’t have the same November and December if we’re trying to build this program to be what we all want it to be, which is nationally prominent.”
And the program’s road back to national prominence starts now, even if it is in a non-televised game in a gym 800 miles west of Albuquerque.
ON CARLTON: As of Monday afternoon there was still no word from the NCAA on whether 6-foot-10 junior transfer Carlton Bragg will be allowed to play at the start of the season or his original eligibility date of Dec. 16.
But, since there is a chance the waiver could be ruled on by the NCAA Tuesday, Bragg did travel with the team to Northridge and has been a full participant in all offseason practices, though he did not play in the team’s closed-door scrimmage Oct. 27 against Northern Arizona University.