Richard Pitino hasn’t watched much of the NCAA Tournament.
Saturday, when he does try to catch some of the men’s Final Four, he’ll see two coaches he considers friends in the business going at it in Gonzaga’s Mark Few and UCLA’s Mick Cronin.
Both, Pitino said, were in his ear about taking the UNM job when it became apparent he was one of UNM’s top candidates.
“Mick Cronin is one of my best friends in coaching. We’re very close,” Pitino said of the man who was a 13-year coach at Cincinnati before replacing former Lobos coach Steve Alford at UCLA in 2019. “He’s been very helpful to me because I’m not from New Mexico. He’s not from LA. But we’ve talked greatly about just staff and even about this job.”
As for Few, who is not one of the dozens of coaching branches off the Rick Pitino coaching tree like both Richard Pitino and Cronin are, the new Lobos coach said their friendship has grown strong through the years as well, and included the head coach of the unbeaten Bulldogs calling him recently about the Lobos job opening.
“He knows the potential of New Mexico,” Pitino said. “… The one thing that Mark Few told me is he feels like New Mexico could be special. And we’ve talked a lot about a lot of situations over the years. And he called me when my name was kind of rumored here and he said that is a place you’ve got to seriously consider.”
Pitino said out West, there aren’t many programs that have the potential for special success with crazed fan bases quite like Arizona, Gonzaga, San Diego State and UNM.
“I spoke with Mark about that. I spoke with Mick about that,” Pitino said. “And so happy – very much happy for them.”
LOBO BLOODLINES IN FINAL FOUR: The Journal has twice written in the past two weeks about players and coaches with past UNM connections in the men’s NCAA Tournament and twice failed to mention UCLA associate head coach Darren Savino, a former Fran Fraschilla assistant from 1999-2002.
Savino has been Cronin’s right-hand man at UCLA and Cincinnati before that for the past 13 seasons.
THE NEW GUYS: Thursday, UNM formally announced the hiring of two assistant coaches – Isaac Chew and Andy Hill. Chew has held multiple Power-6 conference assistant coaching positions as well as being on staff at Murray State and most recently at Grand Canyon. Hill spent the past decade at Utah in the Pac-12, Montana before that and worked his way up the ranks from the NAIA level out west for years prior to that.
So, what do both bring to the job that Pitino was looking for in an assistant?
“They’re well rounded,” Pitino said. “… I need guys that can do the whole job. Number one is develop our players, build unbelievable relationships with those guys, make me better, make this program better, be relentless in recruiting, certainly, because recruiting is the lifeblood of our whole sport.
“I think both of those guys have got great experience. They’ve worked for terrific coaches. They’ve recruited very good players. They know what winning looks like.”
Pitino said there is still no specific timetable on completing his staff. This past season’s assistants – Dan McHale, Scott Padgett and Ralph Davis – all remain on contract through April 30, as does special assistant to the head coach Dave Pilipovich.
THOSE OLD LOBOS: Several Lobos off this past season’s team have been regulars in the Rudy Davalos practice facility working out since Pitino has been on the job, including senior Makuach Maluach.
The NCAA has said the 2020-21 season won’t count against any player’s eligibility, so will Maluach be coming back to UNM in 2021-22 – a thought that was fairly clearly a long shot toward the end of this past season?
“Makuach has been around often,” Pitino said. “I’m slowly, but surely, trying to tell him, ‘Hey, you can come back.'”
Three Lobos in the NCAA’s transfer portal – guard Keith McGee and Isaiah Marin and freshman center Bayron Matos – have not been working out with the team. Matos has been out of the country and, now back, has to go through some COVID-19 protocols, but Pitino plans to talk with him in person as soon as the two can.
HEAR FROM WEIR: Though he’s not really spoken about his time at UNM or departure from the Lobos, many around Albuquerque may have heard former coach Paul Weir on the airwaves this past week.
Weir joined Joe O’Neill on 101.7 KQTM-FM four times in the past week doing hour-long segments previewing and then reacting on Monday through Wednesday to the Elite Eight round of games and then Friday previewing the weekend’s Final Four.
Weir has also done multiple similar radio spots in the past week with stations in Canada, where he’s from, but told the Journal there is no plan in place just yet on what is next for him.