On the surface, it appeared Steve Alford took a step down last March when he resigned as Iowa's coach to take the same job at New Mexico. Alford was leaving a program in a major conference that he had led to three NCAA Tournament berths in eight years for a mid-major that had been struggling in recent seasons.
However, anyone who has ever been to Albuquerque and The Pit, the Lobos' intimidating home court, realizes the New Mexico job is attractive and Alford wasn't making a backward career move.
Since the NCAA began tracking college basketball attendance figures in 1970, New Mexico has been in the top 10 in 32 of 38 seasons. However, average attendance dropped to 12,853 last season, which still ranked 23rd in the country but was low by New Mexico standards. That led to the firing of Ritchie McKay and pushed the Lobos to seek a coach with a bigger name.
Thus, New Mexico plucked Alford away from Iowa, where had won two Big Ten Conference tournament titles.
"The commitment is here and the tradition is here," Alford said. "There are a lot of positives to coaching in New Mexico."
It has truly been a positive experience so far, as New Mexico is off to a 7-0 start for the first time since the 1998-99 season. That already has Lobos fans, who've seen their team make just one trip to the NCAAs in eight seasons, thinking of March Madness. The re-energized fan base in the Land of Enchantment has even started lobbying for top-25 recognition. Alford, however, readily admits New Mexico isn't quite ready for ranking.
"We're not a top-25 team yet and I've been in the game long enough to know that," Alford said. "I don't want to get into fools' gold. I just want our team to get better. We've playing pretty well so far and we're improving. If we can keep doing that, the wins will take care of themselves and the polls will take care of themselves."
New Mexico's wins have come against a weak schedule that has included Colorado, Eastern Washington, Presbyterian, St. Bonaventure, Loyola Marymount, Hawaii and Southern Utah. Alford knows that but also isn't complaining about getting out of the gate 7-0 in his new gig.
"We're beating teams we are supposed to beat at home and we got a huge win over a Big 12 school on the road in Colorado," Alford said. "We're sharing the basketball. Our balance has been very good.
"Are we where we want to be yet? No. We're not at our peak and we have a lot of work to do at both ends of the court. However, it's a good start."
Balance has indeed been New Mexico's hallmark in the early going as senior guard J.R. Giddens leads the team in scoring with a modest 13.4 points per game average. However, eight Lobos are averaging at least 5.1 points a game, including junior guard Chad Toppert (12.0) and senior guard Jamaal Smith (10.0) in double figures.
Alford is using a 10-man rotation and is so happy with the way things are working out that he may stick with it once Mountain West Conference play begins in January.
"I like all 10 guys," Alford said. "We three big guys and seven guards, and they are all giving us something different. We've been finding a lot of good combinations and getting balanced playing time. I hope we're able to play 10 players all year. That would be a positive sign that we have a lot of good players who are contributing."
Alford also likes some other numbers on the stat sheet, including a 57.7 rebounding percentage and 1.6 assist/turnover ratio.
New Mexico will need to play with that kind of efficiency because the non-conference schedule gets tougher, beginning with a game at fellow unbeaten Mississippi (5-0) on Saturday along with a home-and-home against rival New Mexico State and a visit from Texas Tech.
"We've had a lot of games crunched in with six in a span of 15 days to start the season and I like how we responded to that," Alford said. "Now, the games spread out more but the competition also strengthens from this point out. We'll really started finding about ourselves now."
Billy Gillispie used the same five starters in every game last season at Texas A&M, but has adopted a different method of distributing playing time in his first season as coach at Kentucky.
The Wildcats have had eight different players start while beginning the season with a 4-1 record. Injuries have played a part in the instability and Gillispie has also relied on practice performance to help determine his starting lineup.
Senior guard Ramel Bradley, sophomore forward Mark Coury and freshman forward Patrick Paterson are the only players to start all five games. Sophomore guard Michael Porter has started three times while senior guard Joe Crawford, sophomore guard Jodie Meeks and freshman forward Alex Legion have gotten two starts each and freshman forward A.J. Stewart has started once.
Eleven different Wildcats are averaging at least 10 minutes a game. While Kentucky is building uncommon depth, Gillispie admits the different lineup combinations are causing his players to learn his system a little slower than he would like.
"The thing that has been most difficult is not having the same guys out there day after day," Gillispie said. "Hopefully, that's going pay dividends in the long run. They are trying extremely hard. I think they are gaining spirit and gaining confidence. They're getting better but we still have a long ways to go."
Kentucky has won three games in a row since being shocked by Gardner-Webb in its second game of the season. Extended the winning streak might be tough as the Wildcats host North Carolina (6-0), ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, on Saturday.
The Big Ten-ACC Challenge continues to tilt in favor of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
ACC schools went 8-3 this year to raise the conference's record to 56-30 in the nine-year history of the event. The ACC has had the better record in each of the nine seasons.
Regardless of the ACC's .651 winning percentage, it is still a treat whenever the two conferences get together. The ACC and Big Ten have combined to produce 35 of the 80 teams in the Final Four since 1988 and 44 No. 1 seeds since the NCAA Tournament began seeding teams in 1979.
The Team of the Week is Xavier, as the Musketeers moved into the AP rankings this week at No. 23 but are No. 5 in the Pomeroy Ratings.
Xavier is 4-1, and its 80-65 win over Indiana, then ranked No. 8 by the AP, last Saturday in the championship game of the Chicago Invitational Challenge pushed the Musketeers into the top 25. Xavier didn't rest on its ranking as it rolled to a 93-68 home win over Oakland on Wednesday.
Xavier's other wins have been over Southeast Missouri State (90-59), Coppin State (98-49) and Kent State (78-65) while the loss came at the hands of Miami of Ohio (59-57).
Senior forward Josh Duncan (13.7) is leading six Xavier scorers in double figures, followed by junior guard B.J. Raymond (13.0), senior guard C.J. Anderson (12.5), sophomore forward Derrick Brown (12.0), senior guard Drew Lavender (11.0) and senior guard Stanley Burrell (10.7).
While Xavier has shown balanced scoring and is averaging an outstanding 1.19 points per possession, Burrell says the defense has been the key as opponents are shooting just 40 percent from the field, including 28 percent from three-point range.
"We adjust," Burrell said. "(Coach Sean Miller) has a lot of different schemes. Defense is always our identity. That's the main reason we win."
Xavier is the favorite in the Atlantic 10 after winning the regular-season title last season. The Musketeers should be battle tested by the time conference play starts as the rest of their non-conference schedule includes home games with Belmont, Creighton, Cincinnati, Tennessee, Kansas State and Virginia and road trips to Arizona State and Auburn.
The top five games in the next week (based on the Pomeroy Ratings through Thursday's games):
- Saturday, December 1 - No. 10 Marquette at No. 4 Wisconsin
- Sunday, December 2 - No. 3 Texas at No. 6 UCLA
- Wednesday, December 5 - No. 8 Washington State at No. 12 Gonzaga
- Wednesday, December 5 - No. 38 Creighton at No. 5 Xavier
- Wednesday, December 5 - No. 9 Pittsburgh at No. 13 Duquesne
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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