June 18, 2013
A History of Men's Basketball in The Pit: The keys to The Pit have been turned over to Craig Neal, who enters his first season as UNM's head coach in 2013-14. GoLobos.com will look back on the previous eras of Pit basketball in a five-part series: 1- 1966-1972; 2- 1972-1988; 3- 1988-1999; 4- 1999-2007; 5- 2007-2013.
Today: 1999-to-2007; Saturday:2007-to-Craig Neal
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
The new holder of The Pit keys was as slick as a New York minute -as convincing as a street merchant making a pitch on Times Square.
Fran Fraschilla was Broadway cool and Manhattan savvy. He hit The Pit in 1999 with an East Coast swagger and the New York gift for gab. There was no reason not to expect the high-energy Fraschilla to take the Lobos where UNM's AD Rudy Davalos wanted them to go.
To the top of world of college basketball.
The Fraschilla hire was looked upon by most as a good one. Oh, he had a few bumps on the resume formed at Manhattan College and St. John's University, but overall the personable, bubbly Fraschilla had proven that he could lure blue-chip talent into his programs and win basketball games.
And that recruiting edge was what Davalos and New Mexico felt was needed to bump the Lobos further up the NCAA ladder and possibly into Sweet 16 territory or - gulp - maybe The Final Four. The Lobos needed to get bigger, faster, tougher.
Fran looked like the man to do it.
Fraschilla was game for the challenge and his presence out West promised to divert some of that East Coast talent pool to the high desert of Albuquerque. It's fair to say that more than a few Lobo fans were drooling over the possibilities. The proven recruiting record of Fraschilla promised to finally bring out the full potential of The Pit.
It's also fair to say Lobo fans - and even Davalos - wanted to change the pattern established in Bliss Ball: Play a cupcake non-conference schedule, win a lot of games, throw out a solid Mountain West mark, and go NCAA dancing.
It was a formula that made Bliss look good and it did get the Lobos into the NCAA wars. UNM had made the NCAA bracket in each of Bliss' final four seasons as a Lobo.
But no Bliss Lobo team had ever won back-to-back NCAA games. No Bliss team had ever survived the tougher second-round game and marched onto the Sweet 16.
Bliss was hired to get UNM out of the National Invitation Tournament and into the NCAA fray. Fraschilla was hired to dance a bit longer. In a way, that was his downfall. He tried to punch that dance card too quickly by building too quickly - and the wrong way.
Bliss took over a program that had been well stocked by Gary Colson. Fraschilla took over a program that had leaned hard on Kenny Thomas for four years and had a lot of holes to fill -- too many holes to fill.
"Everyone's focus was on the Sweet 16," said Fraschilla after his final season at UNM. "We tried to do things too quickly. By the time I figured out what we needed to do to be good at New Mexico, it was too late."
What Fraschilla did early in his era in The Pit was reach way out to find talent. It's not a bad approach - if the talent hangs around. But Fraschilla's regime was marked by major defections. His recruits swallowed his pitch initially, but when the honeymoon was over and the sweet-talking recruiter turned into a fiery coach, too many of those Lobos decided to bail.
Fraschilla's first year as a Lobo was a step down for the program and that was not Fraschilla's fault. With Thomas gone, the Lobos were limited inside. Bliss had not left his successor a big man. Fraschilla had some talent on the edge in Lamont Long, Damion Walker, Wayland White, Kevin Henry and freshman Marlon Parmer, but UNM had trouble competing - and rebounding - inside.
That team went 18-14 with a respectable 9-5 Mountain West record and fell back into the land of the NIT.
With Long gone, Fraschilla needed a quick fix in the scoring column. He needed an inside-outside presence. He found his inside man.
UNM picked up an unhappy Arizona Wildcat named Ruben Douglas, who could light it up on the board. Douglas gunned his way to an 18.1 scoring average in 2000-01 and UNM won 21 games and headed back into the NIT. The Lobos rode The Pit to two NIT wins but hit the road and were hammered by a solid Memphis team 81-63.
Naturally, the grumbling began. This was not what Fraschilla was hired to do. This was Colson ball.
The flaw in Fraschilla's Lobos was no secret. No big man. But there was a giant of a center tearing things up at Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College and the 7-foot Moustapha Diagne was supposed to be the real deal - even at the D-I level. He also was adapted to the Southwest and probably would hang around The Pit for a few years.
Diagne quickly caught the imagination of Pit fans. They saw Kenny Thomas potential plus five inches in height. It was potential that never blossomed into reality. Diagne also came with a bum foot. He missed practice sessions and he missed games. He averaged 2.0 boards and 2.0 points in 2001-02. Diagne logged 219 minutes that season. (UNM got 1,018 minutes from Alex Kirk this past season and 1,170 from Kendall Williams).
Diagne was not a factor, but the Lobos again had talent and scoring on the edge. UNM lost to highly-regarded, No. 18 Gonzaga 95-90 in overtime with Marlon Parmer scoring 30 and Douglas scoring 15 second-half points. Douglas missed two free throws with seven seconds left in regulation to allow Gonzaga to reach overtime.
The season of 2001-02, Fraschilla's third at UNM, was not a good season by Lobo standards. This time the Lobos ended the year 16-14 and 6-8 in the Mountain West. There also were signs that Fraschilla had lost control of this team. There were issues with Patrick Dennehy, who stormed off the court at Air Force in defiance of Fraschilla. Parmer and Fraschilla were often at odds and Parmer left the team before the season's end.
The Fraschilla Lobos won enough games to attract the invite, but a broken team was crushed 96-62 at Minnesota on March 13, 2002. Fraschilla made another mistake. He was quoted as saying he was glad the season was over.
A week hadn't passed when UNM held a news conference to say that Fraschilla had resigned his post. "At the end of our third year, it was best for everyone that I leave," Fraschilla later said of his push out the UNM door.
"He wasn't getting it done," said Davalos.
The holes in Fraschilla's program were too deep and dark for Davalos to see any daylight. Fraschilla left UNM with a 55-41 record, no NCAA trips and The Pit numbers were in a downward spiral. UNM was losing money. Time for a change.
It also was time for a brilliant hire. Davalos made a justifiable mistake with Fraschilla and the UNM AD needed to pull a magical rabbit out of the hat of applicants. The Pit was losing its edge as the number of bodies in the seats faded.
Tim Floyd and Rob Evans were among the names that surfaced as UNM's next Pit boss. It looked like Davalos was on the verge of making a big-time hire. It never happened. Instead, Davalos pulled a shocker out of the hat.
Davalos hired an unheralded, no-name coach from Oregon State. He hired a coach with an 83-89 career record, no postseason wins and no NCAA Tournament bids.
Ritchie McKay was a choice that made little sense. There wasn't much in McKay's past that indicated he could do what Fraschilla - or Bliss - couldn't do: reach the Sweet 16. His past suggested that his jumps from Portland State to Colorado State to Oregon State to New Mexico were moves engineered to avoid a posse. He lost more than he won. He lost a lot of players, too.
It's possible that because McKay was such an unpopular choice that he was never given a fair chance to succeed at New Mexico. It's also possible that McKay was over his head at UNM. He rolled out a 10-18 campaign his first season (2002-03) at UNM, but Fraschilla had left this Lobo cupboard as bleak as desert bones.
McKay's only hope in 2002-03 was to let Douglas gun. The UNM senior averaged 28.0 points, which topped the national stats. Douglas once scored 39 points and pulled down 14 rebounds in a Pit upset over No. 22 Utah. Douglas made 26 free throws. That week, Douglas scored 82 points in consecutive games.
Douglas was fun to watch. The team was not fun to watch. Davalos' mystery hire was still looking like a mystery.
Like Fraschilla when Fran lost Lamont Long, McKay needed a quick fix to replace Douglas. UNM also needed some size inside. Like Fraschilla when he brought in Douglas, McKay found an unhappy star-to-be at Bradley University. Danny Granger was to become one of the best Lobos ever. He was tall and he could score.
Granger's first season was not a hit. He was too alone on a team with limited talent and not much depth. UNM went 14-14 and 5-9 and there was no postseason play. In 2004-05, Granger paced UNM to a 26-7 season and turned an at-large bid into a guaranteed NCAA bid by winning the Mountain West Tournament. UNM beat the Andrew Bogut-led Utah Utes in the championship game.
The grumbling in The Pit died away - but not for long. UNM lost 55-47 to Villanova in first-round NCAA action. With Granger gone, there was intense scrutiny on McKay's next season. He went 17-13, not horrible, but again there was no postseason invite. McKay was dancing close to the fire that had claimed better Lobo coaches before him.
McKay's end had similarities to Fraschilla's end. His final team in 2006-07 featured two big-name transfers in J.R. Giddens (Kansas) and Aaron Johnson (Penn State), but needed chemistry in order to be successful. There was little chemistry (17 different starting lineups) and McKay was having issues controlling Giddens.
McKay said his Lobos had the potential to be one of the best teams in the West and that it would be "exciting" to watch. Instead, UNM finished 15-16 and staggered to a 4-12 mark in the Mountain West. UNM was 1-6 in its final seven games.
There also was a new sheriff on the AD seat at UNM and Paul Krebs didn't see any light at the end of the McKay tunnel. Krebs announced that 2006-07 would be McKay's last as a Lobo. UNM's 18th head coach was fired with a 31-43 MW record and one postseason trip.
The pressure was now on Krebs. The last two UNM coaches - Fraschilla and McKay - had pulled UNM down the ladder of success. Worse, UNM was losing money at the gate. The cash cow needed a makeover. Krebs' eventual hire was viewed by one Albuquerque sportswriter as a mistake. Another scribe called it potentially UNM's best hire ever.
For sure, the golden boy from Indiana had an eye-opening resume and the GQ looks to grab immediate attention from Lobo fans. He was a Bobby Knight disciple, Mr. Indiana in high school, Olympic Gold and media smooth.
The Steve Alford era was about to take New Mexico basketball to new heights.