Pity the poor fans of University of New Mexico basketball.
First, the euphoria of winning the Mountain West Conference season and tournament, then the No. 3 seed, whispers of Final Four possibilities, all ending with a humiliating loss to Harvard in their first NCAA tournament game.
At least, though, the Lobos had next year — master coach Steve Alford, committed to the university for a decade, along with a team that could include all five starters coming back. The future looked bright indeed.
Last week, though, came the call from UCLA, the legendary basketball school where John Wooden won 10 national championships. Not only did Alford dump his contract and bolt, the solid team he built is now on shaky ground. (About the only silver lining is that Alford owes the university a buyout to exit his contract, although likely not the $1 million in his 10-year deal.)
Key to the immediate future is Alex Kirk, the Northern New Mexico standout who is just a sophomore. Despite his youth, Kirk has taken care of business — he can graduate this summer. The Los Alamos native then has choices: He can stay at UNM and go to graduate school, or transfer to another university — without having to sit out, according to NCAA rules. It's entirely possible that Kirk could be playing in Los Angeles for Alford next season.
He's far from the only question mark, either. Tony Snell is exploring going pro. The Australians (Hugh Greenwood and Cameron Bairstow) who play for the Lobos can go home and also turn pro. It's anyone's guess what next year's Lobos team will look like. For UNM, it's essential to move quickly to find a coach who can both recruit and execute a game plan. Assistant coach Craig Neal appears to have the backing of players and many fans, and we hope he steps up during this "interim" period and earns the job. His hire would bring stability after the tumult of the past few weeks. What's more, we hear he is a darn good coach, too.
As for next year — and isn't it always next year for the Lobos? — let's trust that the new UNM coach inspires and holds the team together. That way, the promise and talent of this year's Lobos will be fulfilled. At long last.
— The Santa Fe New Mexican