Dear Lobo fans,
A familiar feeling revisits us with the end of the basketball season. A Lobo team with the potential to advance to make history exits, what seems to be, early from the NCAA tournament. We are disappointed. Some are distraught. A few curse about years past.
Regardless of where you were Friday after the game--emotionally, not physically--we must realize that this season had the potential to be much different based on decisions made nearly a year ago. Here are some alternative histories to the 2013-14 season:
What if Tony Snell stuck around?
With Steve Alford off to UCLA, Craig Neal begins his career as a head coach with one of the most talented teams in UNM history. The Lobos rip through the non-conference schedule with their only loss coming in a tight game on a “neutral floor” in Kansas City. As the Lobos make weekly appearances in the Top 25 polls, Snell makes weekly appearances on SportsCenter’s Top 10 with soaring slams. The Lobos pull out multiple tight conference games, but the backcourt of Snell, Kendall Williams, and Hugh Greenwood makes the big shot or perfect dish to Bairstow or Kirk for the win. UNM drops the final game of the season to SDSU in Viejas Arena, but ends the regular season with the overall record of 28-2. The Lobos clean up conference honors. Snell earns Player of the Year, and Neil takes home Coach of the Year in his first year as a head coach.
Supported by the near double-doubles coming from Bairstow and Kirk each game, the Lobos dominate the Mountain West Tournament and receive a No. 3 seed. In the round of 64, Williams and Kirk struggle, only scoring a combined six points, but, with big games from Snell, Bairstow, and Deshawn Delany, the Lobos beat Mercer in a tight game. UNM makes history by advancing not only to the Sweet 16, but beyond to the Elite Eight. The Lobos lose to the eventual national champions, Florida, and Lobo Nation takes a collective sigh as the team finally made the exit we all thought they should.
What if Steve Alford remained at UNM another season?
Early in the season, the Lobos look sharp on defense, but it is clear they miss Tony Snell. They fall early to UMass in The Charleston Classic, but sweep NMSU. The Lobos freshman guard Bryce Alford makes an early splash coming up with a big performance against Marquette and icing the game at the end of regulation with free throws in Wyoming. While Alford averages 8.1 points per game and comes up with a career high of 31 points during conference play, radio shows, newspapers, and Pit fans grumble with criticisms that Coach Alford is favoring his son and hurting the team. Other Lobo fans notice Cullen Neal starting at St. Mary’s, and wonder what the Alford-Neal guard tandem would have looked like in The Pit after a couple years of development.
In conference, the Lobos drop three games: one at home against UNLV, then at Boise State, and finally at SDSU--where Coach Alford exchanges profanities with an SDSU player. The Lobos finish the regular season in second place in the Mountain West with an overall record of 25-5. After winning the conference tournament, the Lobos receive a No. 7 seed and face Stanford in the round of 64. After vowing to prove the seeding committee wrong, the Lobos face a Stanford team which comes out hot and takes a double-digit lead early. The Lobos push their way back into the game, but they never take the lead. The Lobos exit the tournament; many fans are disappointed because they thought UNM would advance much further. Some observe that the players had tired legs and cite the four-hour Selection Sunday party at The Pit the week before as the reason for fatigue.
With two children on the team, a multi-year contract, and big buyout to leave, Alford has plenty of incentive to stay at UNM, but he spends the next couple weeks waiting for the right call. Tom Crean’s previous seasons of success at Indiana should keep his job, but a few antsy--and rich--alumni take the Hoosiers’ disappointing season hard. They push for a coaching change, and Alford gets the call to return to Bloomington. Lobo fans cry foul. They say they’ve been betrayed by someone who said he would be at UNM forever, but, doubling his salary and taking his sons to be Hoosiers, Alford quietly says goodbye to The Pit on a March morning on his way to the airport.
What if Athletic Director Paul Krebs did not hire Craig Neal?
Krebs announces that UNM has decided to go another direction and hire someone with head coaching experience. Some thought the Lobo players were bluffing when they said they would transfer if “Noodles” was not hired, but they weren’t. Kirk graduates immediately to head to UCLA. Williams weighs his options and decides to fulfill his childhood dream--playing as a Bruin. Bairstow leaves to play professional basketball in Australia, and multiple recruits and transfers start their searches again.
The record setting 2012-13 season is followed by an 8th-place finish in the Mountain West. Fans hope everything they say about the new coach being a great recruiter is true--but the Alford era is over, and we seem to be back where he started in 2007.
These are a few ideas of what this season could have been if one or another thing went differently. Tony Snell would have made a significant difference in this season’s success, but Alford would not have. If Alford stuck around, he may not have ended up at Indiana right away, but he never planned to be in New Mexico forever. I know he said it, but the truth was something like, “I love coaching at UNM, but, if it is a stepping stone to coaching the elite programs and making tons of money, so be it.” Obviously, this statement would not be received well by players, recruits, fans, or future places to work, but we know it is truth.
Krebs looks great hiring Craig Neal. He had a terrific freshman season at the head coach--nearly everything you could hope for--but now the Lobos enter the next realm of possibility. Coach Neal was a great recruiter for years, but it was to Alford’s program. We will see what Neal and his coaching team can do for UNM in the coming seasons. Lamont Smith had what seems to be a great year, but, as the associate head coach, he will have to develop players. This year, the veteran players came in ready-to-compete condition. We know the same cannot be said for the bench. For me, the Alford era can be defined by his ability to build a program: sign high level recruits year after year and develop players at UNM to contribute over their careers. I am not saying Neal and Smith cannot recruit and develop players, but the real challenge to keep UNM’s program competitive begins now. Time will tell Lobo fans.
Yours in Section K
P.S. After an overtime victory against NMSU, Coach Steve Fisher arrived at his post-game conference to talk not about basketball, but travel arrangements. He explained that the NCAA made plans for SDSU to fly home the same day as the game if they lost. Fisher reported he called the NCAA and asked to fly back the day after the game in the event of a loss, but the NCAA said, while the issue was not money, it could not transport SDSU the day after the game.
For a team losing in the afternoon, this procedure may seem like a blessing; you get to sleep in your own bed, but the SDSU-NMSU game ended at 10:30 pm PST. As Fisher explained, after showers and interviews, NMSU, the loser of the game, would leave for the Spokane airport, get on a flight leaving well past midnight, and travel through the night to get back to Las Cruses. Fisher simply said, “It’s disgraceful.”
Steve Fisher made me have sympathy for the Aggies--I never thought I’d write that.
Fisher’s gripe was far from altruistic. Last season, after SDSU lost to No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast, the Aztecs were forced to make an all-night journey home from Philadelphia. The 10-hour plane journey was diverted by weather and landed to refuel before arriving in San Diego at sunrise. Fisher waited a year to raise this complaint because he did not sound bitter after an upset loss.
To put this in perspective, the NCAA sold the television rights to the tournament for the next 14 years to CBS for $10.8 billion. The NCAA will make more money from the tournament with ticket sales and corporate sponsorships. In other words, there is somewhere in the ballpark of a billion dollars of revenue to the NCAA directly tied to the 68-team tournament every year. But, the NCAA lack the means--whatever it claims they may be--to fly a team back the day after it loses a game.
Fisher is right. It is disgraceful. The corporate model to maximize profits has once again trumped workers rights. Wait, you have to get paid to be a worker. The corporate model to maximize profits trumped reasonable volunteer conditions for amateur performers. I am not sure why we let this happen.