The college basketball world on Monday went a little crazy when news broke that frequent Albuquerque visitor Rick Pitino would be taking over as the new head coach at St. John’s.
The return to the Big East Conference, and to coaching (some) of his home games at Madison Square Garden, for Pitino, the Hall of Fame coach is big news for the sport.
“Clearly ducking a return game with the Lobos,” UNM coach Richard Pitino, Rick Pitino’s son who hosted his dad and his now former team, the Iona Gaels, for a game in the Pit this past season, wrote on Twitter about the news.
Of course the Pitino vs. Pitino/Father vs. Son game played Dec. 18 in the Pit was supposed to be the first of a two-game, home-and-home series between UNM and Iona that calls for the Lobos to play a game in New Rochelle, New York, this coming season.
It’s safe to say that game won’t be played now, but there is the matter of the contract that still exists that calls for a $25,000 penalty if the Lobos don’t play the game.
That said, the games were clearly agreed upon for the Pitino-vs.-Pitino attention they would draw, and continuing with it at this point might not serve much of a purpose for either school.
I would expect the schools to come to some negotiated understanding, but even if they don’t, the penalty cost for UNM could easily be made up for by replacing the game with revenue from a home game on the schedule next season or taking another “buy” game as it did this past season when Saint Mary’s paid the Lobos $75,000 to play them in California.
As for the Lobos and St. John’s playing a game, don’t hold your breath.
The Iona/UNM game in December made sense for a few reasons, with Iona then on its way across the country to Hawaii for a tournament. Landing in Albuquerque was a practical stop along the way while the Lobos needed an injection of attention to get the Pit buzzing again in Year 2 under Richard Pitino.
It worked, with an announced crowd of 14,534 that was the largest at home for the program since March 1, 2016.
Neither program — UNM, nor St. John’s — is in a similar spot where a cross-country trip this coming season makes a ton of scheduling sense.
EMAN IN THE PORTAL: Senior wing Emmanuel Kuac, the longest-tenured Lobo who joined the team in 2019, has entered the NCAA’s transfer portal.
Kuac, the 6-foot-7 guard who could jump out of the gym when he arrived on campus at UNM, ended both of the past two seasons with devastating season-ending leg injuries — a broken leg suffered in a game vs. Utah State on Jan. 8, 2022, and then, after nearly a year of slow rehabilitation, a torn patellar tendon in pregame warmups at Fresno State on Jan 3.
He played just 1 minute, 49 seconds this past season.
Between a COVID year of eligibility and a possible medical redshirt season, Kuac likely has two more seasons he can play. At a minimum, he has one season.
ELSEWHERE AROUND THE MOUNTAIN: While the transfer-portal season is only in its infancy this season, there is one Mountain West team and one Mountain West tweet I thought were worth noting.
First, to Laramie. The Wyoming Cowboys have had seven players with eligibility remaining transfer from the program this year — some did so in season — with sharp-shooting guard Xavier DuSell being the latest to announce on Monday.
Coupled with the graduation of Hunter Maldonado and Hunter Thompson, there are nine open scholarships for the Cowboys so far for next season with just four scholarship players, including star center Graham Ike, still on the roster.
REF SHOW: Among the 40 referees the NCAA has selected to work this week’s Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games that UNM and Mountain West fans likley are familiar with: Eric Curry, John Higgins, Michael Irving, Tony Padilla, Gerry Pollard and Mike Reed.
So, there you go, Lobo fans. You still have plenty to cheer for in the NCAA Tournament.
ME VS. THE JACKET: How’s your office bracket going?
In my latest attempt to flex my college hoops knowledge as a guy who gets paid to cover this sport and, hopefully, has a sliver of credibility, I put my bracket picks this year up against Jack Pitino, the 8-year-old son of Richard Pitino. We even have it on video.
Apparently these Pitinos know a thing or two about college basketball.
As you might expect, Jack’s bracket, or “The Jacket” as we called it, is beating my Grammer’s Guesses, which is what I call the season-long game predictions I’ve made for the past six years going head-to-head with my now 13-year-old daughter, who picks by flipping a coin.
The coin beat me this year — the fourth time in six years of doing this.
Through the first four days of the tournament, here are the number of games picked correctly:
■ The Jacket: 30
■ Grammer’s Guesses: 28
After posting on Twitter the first-day scoring update with young Jack beating me, Richard Pitino replied: “You’re losing to a kid who just asked me to make him a hot dog for breakfast.”