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You might call them Pit stains, the streaks of paint on the walls, the trails of dirt on the concourses, the stray bits of scaffolding and drywall. New Mexico's basketball arena is undergoing $60 million in cosmetic surgery, an undertaking so intense that the concession stands have been moved outdoors and the restrooms are a cluster of portable toilets in the parking lot. When the work is done, the 43-year-old venue will be flush with suites and video boards, resuming its place among the most charismatic gyms in the country. But right now the Pit is living up (or down) to its name.
On the court, though, a far tidier renovation job has been unfolding. The Lobos were picked to finish in the middle of the middling Mountain West Conference before the season, all but ensuring that they would fail to make the NCAA tournament for the ninth time in a decade. The team had lost its top three scorers from 2008--09, had no player in the rotation taller than 6'8" and had scant experience. When New Mexico held its Senior Night on March 3, the ceremony didn't take long. Only one player, forward Roman Martinez, was in his final year of eligibility.
Yet that same night in Albuquerque, before still another sold-out, eardrum-splitting crowd of 14,586 at the Pit, the Lobos celebrated a regular season conference championship. They held off TCU to win their 28th game, validating their status both as the eighth-ranked team in the country—highest of any program in the western half of the U.S.—and the biggest surprise of this season. In the process they've captivated an entire state. From Hobbs to Taos, if you're not wearing cherry and silver, you're in the minority. "We're a small state, and we don't have a major league franchise," says Governor Bill Richardson, a regular at home games this season. "Everybody roots for Lobos basketball, especially at the time of an economic downturn. It's really been this unifying force."
New Mexico's unlikely return to prominence mirrors the arc of its coach, Steve Alford. With the exception of Larry Bird, Alford might be the ultimate avatar of Indiana basketball, a classic Hoosier with a velveteen jumper, a deep-rooted competitive streak, and—all together now—a passion for playing the right way. Within five years of leading Indiana to the 1987 national title as a shooting guard, he was, predictably, ascending the college coaching ladder. He had both pedigree and polish and quickly rose from Division III Manchester (Ind.) College to Southwest Missouri State. Alford was 34 when, in 1999, he accepted the head position at Iowa, a way station, it was thought, on his return to Bloomington.
But then Alford's path took a turn. In 2000 he was passed over for the Hoosiers job, which he'd openly coveted, causing him, friends say, to cool toward both the university and the entire state. Meanwhile, in Iowa City, Alford fell out of favor. He passionately defended one of his players, Pierre Pierce, who'd been charged with sexual assault. He was perceived by some as arrogant and self-righteous. He came up short in comparisons with the Hawkeyes' adored football coach, Kirk Ferentz. But Alford's most grievous offense? His teams won only one NCAA tournament game in eight seasons.
In 2007, with the Iowa posse on his heels, Alford took a call from Bob Knight, then at Texas Tech. Just as his old coach had decamped from the Midwest for the Southwest, Knight recommended Alford do likewise. "There's a job opening at New Mexico, and it would be perfect for you," Knight told him. Knight spoke highly of the university's president, David Schmidly, who had hired Knight while at Texas Tech before arriving in Albuquerque. Knight gushed about the weather and the culture. Most of all, Alford recalls, Knight touted New Mexico as an underrated basketball state, with fans "surprisingly rabid" about their hoops, the General said. A few weeks later Alford was introduced as the Lobos' coach.
You could contend that leaving Iowa and the Big Ten for a teetering program in the Mountain West was not even a lateral career move. Alford disagrees. "I was going to a place where you don't have to work tireless hours to market and sell and [appease] the fan base," he says. "Whenever you have loyal fans, you can put all your attention into the X's and O's and your team. That's a huge advantage."
In his first two seasons Alford coached capably, "changing the culture," as Martinez puts it, and taking unremarkable teams to the NIT. "What a great leader he's been," Martinez adds. "He expects excellence, he gets after us, and we've responded."
This year, the dividends: After two early losses in conference play, the Lobos reeled off 15 wins in a row before being upset by San Diego State in the semifinals of the Mountain West tournament last Friday. And, to the delight of their coach and his purist sensibilities, they've done it with defense, selflessness and poise when it matters most. "We've won so many close games, so many games in the last four minutes," says Alford. "This group just has it."
Inasmuch as the Lobos have a star, it's 6'7" Darington Hobson, a flashy junior swingman who at week's end led the team in points (16.2 per game), rebounds (9.2) and assists (4.6). A native of Las Vegas, Hobson followed the advice of shadowy AAU coaches and advisers as a kid, pinballing among five high schools from Nevada to Illinois and playing two seasons at the College of Eastern Utah, a junior college in Price, Utah. Though that kind of itinerancy tends to be a blinking yellow warning sign for a coach, Alford, who had recruited Hobson out of high school, brought him on board last summer. The investment paid off handsomely. "With me it was always mental," Hobson says. "I'm at a place now where I'm comfortable, the coaches are father figures, and I think it shows when I play."