ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ex-Ute Coach Makes Return Today With 12-1 Saint Louis
What a perfect guest for a New Year’s Eve bash.
Rick Majerus got the invite, and he was more than happy to accept.
Thus, late this afternoon the party begins when Majerus makes his Pit return. His Saint Louis Billikens (12-1) face streaking New Mexico (11-2) in what should be a festive atmosphere.
“Albuquerque is just a great college basketball town, a great basketball town,” said Majerus, the longtime and highly successful former Utah Utes coach.
“I think they have maybe the best fan base in America. They’re loyal, they’re dedicated, they’re knowledgeable. There are very few fans can you ascribe all those attributes to.”
Majerus knows better than most.
This will be his first trip to Albuquerque with the Billikens, the team he’s coaching for a fifth season, but he made plenty of previous visits. And while it was never on New Year’s Eve, it was always an event when he and the Utes came to town.
“And it will be again,” said longtime Lobo season-ticket holder Tim McKernan. “It’s going to be crazy. He’s a hell of a coach and everyone respects him. I think he’ll get an ovation, to be honest, when he takes the floor. I don’t see why he shouldn’t.
“Until the game starts.”
This was actually a game most folks thought would materialize over Thanksgiving weekend — with a rematch (not first meeting) coming today. The Billikens held up their part of those expectations, getting to the title game and eventually crushing Oklahoma 83-63 to win the 76 Classic last month in Anaheim, Calif.
The Lobos, however, were stunned by Santa Clara in the opening round of the eight-team event, fell into the losers’ bracket and never saw the Billikens all weekend.
New Mexico hasn’t lost since. The Lobos have ripped off nine straight victories and roll into the Pit fresh off an 89-69 shellacking of New Mexico State in Las Cruces on Wednesday.
“Things are coming together,” said UNM senior post Drew Gordon. “We’ve got to work out the kinks and everything. But we’re escalating in our play, and hopefully we don’t peak too soon.”
Peaking at the right time was something Majerus’ teams had a knack of doing.
He led the Utes into the NCAA Tournament 10 times during his 15 seasons, getting all the way to championship game in 1998, when they lost to Kentucky.
He also led Marquette to three NITs in as many seasons and took Ball State to the NCAA Tournament in one of his two seasons there.
Majerus is 503-209 all-time in is 26th year as a head coach, and went 5-10 against the Lobos in the Pit — tied for second behind UTEP’s Don Haskins for most wins by a visiting coach. Majerus never lost to the Lobos outside the Pit, going 19-10 versus New Mexico all-time.
“Rick has developed winning teams wherever he’s been, and those teams have developed winning climates on every campus he has touched,” UNM coach Steve Alford said. “His players are better for playing under him. In my opinion, that’s what coaching is all about, and Rick has an entire career that exemplifies these traits.”
Majerus, who last coached in the Pit in 2004, said his return will bring back plenty of memories.
“If you want to talk about Haskins, if you want to talk about some of the great Lobos coaches — Gary Colson, Norm Ellenberger, Bob King — (Lobo fans) know all about those days. It was fun to play there. The fans are passionate but not disrespectful. They always had good teams, and we had great rivalries. To a certain extent.”
TICKETS: About 500 remain for today’s game, UNM says. Many will be club seats and at the top of the student section behind the north basket.