June 15, 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: 1988-1999: Tuesday:1999-2007
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
It is likely that few Lobo coaches have ever inherited a program where the cupboard was so well stocked with talent and potential.
We're not talking about Craig Neal and the talent pool he inherits from Steve Alford, although that is a rich inheritance. We're talking about the team that greeted Dave Bliss in 1988 when he bolted from football-crazed Texas and Southern Methodist and stepped into The Pit program created and left by Gary Colson.
This was quite a find for Bliss. He slipped away from an SMU athletics program reeling under a football scandal that had the NCAA sniffing around in various corners of Mustang athletics. At New Mexico, Bliss was greeted by a basketball-crazed community and a team featuring Charlie Thomas, Rob Robbins, Rob Loeffel, Kurt Miller, Darrell McGee, Willie Banks and the promising 7-foot-1 center from Australian named Luc Longley.
Yep, these Lobo shelves were loaded and Bliss had done good work at SMU (142-101) and Oklahoma (77-62) and was more than ready to take a ride where basketball was king.
Bliss was a contrast to the laid back, personable Colson. Bliss was business-like, controlling and somewhat manipulative. He liked to steer his players - and the media - in his direction and didn't have much trouble doing that because of one simple factor - he won basketball games.
Bliss won quickly; no rebuilding necessary with five Lobos - Longley, Robbins, Loeffel, Thomas and Banks - throwing up enough points to eventually join the Lobo 1,000-Point Club. Bliss's first Lobo team rolled out a 22-11 overall mark and posted a respectable 11-5 record in the Western Athletic Conference.
But in that first season there was a major hint of a flaw in Bliss' program that would haunt his 11 years in The Pit. His Lobos were rolled out of the 1989 WAC Tournament 89-57 by Texas El Paso. Later, his Lobo teams would be questioned and judged because of a lack of toughness, a lack of road toughness, and the inability to beat good teams in big games - especially NCAA games.
In 1989, Bliss's first UNM team went to the National Invitation Tournament and won two Pit games before blowing a big halftime Pit lead in losing to St. Louis, which advanced to Madison Square Garden. In 1989-90, a 20-14 mark led to another NIT invite and three Pit wins pushed the Lobos to New York City where they went 0-2.
Little steps! You could see the progress in Bliss' program, but the coach with the wall-to-wall grin was brought in to replace a coach who did not go NCAA dancing. There was pressure in Bliss' third season to make that NCAA plunge. Colson had perfected the 20-win season/NIT thing. It was time to climb the ladder.
It's fair to say there was more than a little unrest in the community of Lobo fans, who had been packing The Pit for so many years. It hadn't gotten ugly yet, because Bliss was winning and was coming off only his second season as a Lobo. But it had been more than a decade since the Lobos had reached the NCAA Tournament in 1978 when Norm Ellenberger's Lobos were stunned by Cal State Fullerton.
It appeared that Bliss had the team to go dancing. It was Rob Robbins' and Luc Longley's senior year and the supporting cast was good, too. UNM might have underachieved a tad, but the Lobos did kick out a 20-10 season and got the call from the NCAA. The Lobos went to College Park, Md., suffering an uninspiring 67-57 loss to Oklahoma State. But the Lobos had finally put on their dancing shoes.
The next season was a step-back year. Bliss again won 20 games, but UNM's postseason journey once again was to the NIT.
The next two seasons saw Bliss' program surge back up the ladder and back into the NCAA. In 1992-93, UNM won the WAC Tournament and the league's automatic NCAA bid which led to another first-round NCAA loss. It was a good year: a WAC tourney title, an NCAA invite. But Lobo fans' palate had been teased by the taste of March Madness. They wanted a bigger bite.
In 1993-94, Bliss added another bit of bling to his resume. A Lobo team that was not highly regarded going into the season rolled to UNM's first regular-season league title in 16 years. The team was led by 5-foot-7 Greg Brown, 6-7 center Lewis LaMar and a promising freshman named Charles "Spider" Smith. UNM lost to Hawaii in the WAC tourney, but again the NCAA came calling. And again UNM was dumped out of the NCAA in the first round - 57-54 to Virginia.
The Lobos of 1994-95 took that roller-coaster ride down the win chart. They stumbled to a 15-15 mark - Bliss' only season with fewer than 20 wins. The Lobos also went 9-9 in the WAC and not even having the WAC tournament in The Pit gave Lobo fans much hope of finding a backdoor to the NCAA Tournament.
The season ended in humiliation. Rick Majerus' Utah Utes came into The Pit and smashed New Mexico 86-50. The 36-point defeat showed a number of major flaws in Bliss' team, but the inside domination by Utah was devastating. Simply put: the Lobos needed to find a center. Bliss had one in mind: Kenny Thomas.
Thomas, playing for Albuquerque High, was one of the state's top prospects along with A.J. Bramlett over at La Cueva High. Bramlett went to Arizona and won a national title. Thomas came to New Mexico and raised a program to a higher level.
Thomas clearly wanted to be a Lobo, but he did not clear NCAA academic standards for admission thanks to a screw up back at a former high school in El Paso. He was a credit short of eligibility, but Bliss was not the type to be controlled by NCAA law.
UNM took the NCAA to court and even though the NCAA's argument was convincing, a local judge approved an injunction allowing Thomas to play as a freshman.
Eventually, UNM would suffer NCAA sanctions as a result of playing Thomas, but Bliss figured having Thomas immediately on the court was worth a few NCAA slaps down the road. He probably was right. With Thomas in the paint, UNM went to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
Thomas was a bull inside and used his wide hips and strong moves to push up his soft shot. In his rookie season in The Pit, he teamed up with Charles "Spider" Smith, Clayton Shields and Royce Olney to lead the Lobos to an eye-opening 28-5 record.
Those Lobos won the WAC Tournament in The Pit and raced into the NCAA dreaming of the Sweet 16. It was a lofty dream for a program yet to win a first-round NCAA game, but UNM finally did push into a second-round game in Richmond, Va., before losing to the Allen Iverson-led Georgetown Hoyas.
While Bliss was able to brush one monkey off his back (wining a first-round game), another monkey jumped onto the perch. Lobo fans wanted to taste the Sweet 16.
In 1996-97, the Lobos came close. They posted a 25-win season, lost to No. 3 Utah in the WAC title game, but got called to Pittsburgh to open the NCAA wars vs. Old Dominion. UNM won 59-55 and moved on to face the No. 25 Louisville Cardinals.
The Lobos had the ball in the game's closing seconds and even got the ball into the hands of their leading scorer, "Spider" Smith. Smith passed up the chance and kicked the ball to David Gibson, who missed a running layup.
The Bliss Lobos never again came that close to winning a second-round game. In 1997-98, Thomas, Shields, Olney and Lamont Long keyed a 24-8 team that lost in the WAC title game to UNLV (56-51). UNM got an NCAA at-large bid, but lost a second round game to Syracuse (56-46) in Lexington, Ky.
The pattern emerging here was both good and bad. Bliss used The Pit and a so-so schedule to win a lot of games and form a confident team that did well in the WAC wars. His Lobos were winning enough games to get a call from the NCAA, but they could not advance when facing the tougher teams that the second round usually brings.
In 1998-99, Thomas' senior year, UNM rolled out a 25-9 mark (9-5 WAC) and lost 60-45 to Utah in the WAC tourney championship game. The Lobos again went 1-1 in the NCAA postseason beating Missouri and losing to Connecticut.
The Lobos took some hard hits during the season losing by 18 and 30 to Utah, by 11 at NMSU and by 18 at UTEP. UNM/Bliss also failed to make it to the Sweet 16 and Thomas was about to move on to a respectable NBA career.
Bliss was aware of the rumbling outside The Pit and even got some much-needed pressure from the UNM's athletics director, Rudy Davalos. "It seems like we've been soft," Davalos said in March of 1999. Davalos wanted the Lobos to become a tougher team and program to eventually play at the same level of the teams from back East. He wanted UNM to be tougher on the road.
There also was grumbling from Lobo fans not happy with the cupcakes they too often had to watch UNM smash in The Pit.
Bliss was at a crossroads. He was losing Thomas. He was being pressured into strengthening his home schedule. He also was a marketable commodity with four straight NCAA bids and 10 of his 11 seasons producing 20 wins or more. His Lobos had been ranked in The Associated Press poll every week in Bliss' final three seasons as a Lobo.
When Baylor came calling with a lucrative offer, Bliss jumped on it. Basically, Bliss did what UNM initially wanted him to do. He changed an NIT program into an NCAA program. His Lobos went NCAA dancing in seven of his final nine seasons.
But with Lobo basketball, it's not always what you can grasp and bring home. There are always dreams and goals dangling beyond the fingertips. The Sweet 16 thing was turning into a Lobo passion - a fan obsession.
For Bliss, the smart thing probably was to move on. For UNM, the next move was to find a coach who had the savvy and the recruiting touch to bring in the talent and the toughness that Davalos wanted. Davalos said he wanted the next Lobo coach to be able to recruit at the national level.
He found one named Fran Fraschilla, a fast-talking New Yorker known for his ability to recruit and court high-energy teams. Eventually, Fraschilla's ability to recruit nationally brought an old adage to the surface: "Be careful what you wish for."
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former award-winning Sports Columnist and Associate Sports Editor at The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charlie Thomas (1987-88): This powerful, big-time transfer from Wake Forest was only in The Pit for two seasons, but he made a huge impact. Thomas had the toughness that UNM sometimes lacked as a team. He left UNM with 1,000-plus points and 500-plus boards.
Luc Longley (1987-91): Longley had the 7-foot-1 frame and a soft touch that pushed him up the UNM career charts in shots blocked, scoring and rebounding. He went on to become a NBA lottery pick and a champion on the Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls.
Greg Brown (1992-94): Brown, at 5-7, was bypassed coming out of Albuquerque High and came to UNM via New Mexico Junior College. He was the 1994 WAC Player of The Year and scored 30 points or more four times as a Lobo.
Charles "Spider" Smith (1993-97): Smith almost created a 2,000-Point Club at UNM leaving with 1,993. He helped UNM to three NCAA tournaments and his length and quickness made him a formidable defender.
Kenny Thomas (1995-99): Thomas took UNM basketball to another level. He was the first WAC player to post 1,800 points, 1,000 rebounds and 200 blocked shots. His record as a Lobo was 102-30 and he went NCAA dancing all four seasons at UNM.
Rob Robbins (1987-91): Robbins gave UNM a 3-point threat that complemented what Longley was doing inside. He started 133 games and shot a career 88.8 percent from the line (93.5 percent one year).