It's not just about Steve; Lobos vs Wolf Pack has NCAA implications - Albuquerque Journal

It’s not just about Steve; Lobos vs Wolf Pack has NCAA implications

Nevada head coach Steve Alford, right, and assistant Craig Neal walk down the Pit ramp before the Wolf Pack’s Feb. 20, 2020 game against New Mexico. Alford and Neal, both former UNM head coaches, will bring their team back to the Pit on Tuesday to face the Lobos. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

But this time, it actually means something.

Sure, Steve Alford, who some would argue is the most successful coach in the history of UNM Lobo men’s basketball, has already made one return visit to the Pit after that sudden March 2013 departure for UCLA.

In fact, the boos of the announced Pit crowd of 12,032 from that Feb. 18, 2020, night as he and top assistant Craig Neal – the Lobos’ head coach from 2013 to 2017 – made their way as the leaders of Nevada basketball down the Pit ramp and across Bob King Court to the unfamiliar visitors bench still echo in the memory banks of some Lobo fans.

The Wolf Pack hushed the Pit that night with a rather comfortable 88-74 win over the Lobos in a game that didn’t have postseason or league title implications.

This ain’t that.

Tuesday, when Alford leads the Wolf Pack (18-6, 8-3 Mountain West) down that Pit ramp for just the second time as an opposing coach and just two weeks after an epic double-overtime, and some would say controversial, win over the Lobos in Reno, there will be an expected crowd of around 15,000 fans waiting in the resurrected Pit.

And while some still hold him in high regard and enough time has passed to heal old wounds for others, it is still a highly important game for the Lobos (19-4, 6-4 Mountain West) with the stakes much, much higher than his last visit, this time with league championship and NCAA Tournament implications at play.

“We all know what’s at stake with this game,” said Lobo guard Jamal Mashburn, Jr., who leads the Mountain West in scoring and had a career-high 33 points in the Jan. 23 loss in Reno that was capped off by a court storming by Wolf Pack fans.

“This is a top team in the conference. And we’re trying to be one of those top teams. So, this is an important game for us and I think we’ve been prepared for that.”

The Wolf Pack, meanwhile, is about to get a taste of something new. No active player on the roster has played in the Pit (senior K.J. Hymes played in the 2020 game, but is out the rest of this season injured) and Nevada has struggled on the road, losing its past three road games – to San Diego State, Boise State and UNLV – by an average of 10 points.

And while Alford isn’t downplaying the importance of the game, he certainly isn’t doing anything to add to the buildup, either.

“There’s no expectations (about what the environment in the Pit will be like),” Alford told the Journal in an interview that can be heard in its entirety in Episode 60 of the Talking Grammer podcast. “Obviously, I was there six years and loved my time in Albuquerque, loved my time at UNM … It’s obviously an incredible fan base, a great basketball fan base. And, you know, we feel like we were fortunate to be a part of that.”

Alford said he has regularly checked UNM scores from the time he left for UCLA and even now as Nevada’s coach and added nothing but high praise for the job Lobos coach Richard Pitino has done in the rebuilding of the program, including his “doing a tremendous job of getting that enthusiasm back to a high level.”

For his part, Pitino said he admires Alford’s accomplishments at UNM and sees similarities between not only his father leaving Kentucky then coaching at Louisville, but also similarities in his own journey from coaching at Big Ten program at a young age and then coaching the Lobos.

Alford coached at Iowa before coming to UNM; Pitino previously coached at Minnesota.

And while he fully understands why fans are excited, Pitino said the Alford angle probably doesn’t register quite as high for his players.

“John Wooden could be coaching and my players wouldn’t care,” Pitino joked. “It’s no disrespect to coach Alford, but they don’t. He was here, what, 10 years ago? That’s like an eternity for these young people. … But I know fans are very, very passionate, and they love their Lobos and they love the state of New Mexico and I get it.”

What happens in Reno…

On Jan. 23, Nevada beat UNM 97-94 in an epic double-overtime thriller that included 16 lead changes, 21 ties, and neither team leading by more than five points in over 50 minutes of play.

And, of course, there was the retroactive flagrant foul called on UNM’s Morris Udeze in the closing minute of the second overtime – a foul called after a video review conducted during a timeout after referees had decided not to call any fouls, on Udeze or by Udeze, as the game action unfolded.

Neither Pitino nor Alford this week spoke much about the ending of that game (Pitino did note he doesn’t view that as why they lost), but both agree it was a heckuva game.

“I’ve always said I was a fan first,” Alford said, adding home wins over Boise State, UNM and San Diego State this season have been some of the best he’s ever been a part of. “… These are three of the best college basketball games that I’ve been a part of in a while. They’ve just been back and forth where I thought both teams really played well and really played hard. And kids on both sides making play after play.”

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