Richard Pitino has been on the job for less than two months and he’s already figured out one of the basic principles of scheduling.
Basically, the uglier you are, the harder it is to land a big-name opponent.
Speaking to a group of local media members Wednesday, the recently hired University of New Mexico men’s basketball coach said he’s nearing the finish line for the Lobos’ 2021-22 schedule. It should, he suggested, be ready for publication in a matter of weeks.
What he has learned is UNM’s recent struggles — seven straight years and counting without a postseason berth — makes it difficult to land opponents from power conferences like the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC.
Traditionally, Pitino said, coaches from mid-majors like UNM have shied away from the so-called 2-for-1 philosophy, one in which a program the stature of New Mexico would sign a multiyear contract with a higher-profile school with the agreement that the Lobos would get one home nonconference game in exchange for two on the road.
With budgets shrinking, in-season tournaments growing and TV money calling the shots, getting those games is proving more difficult — particularly given UNM’s recent history.
“Unfortunately, our NET Ranking is very low from last year,” Pitino said, referencing last season’s team that finished No. 303 out of 347 Division I programs across the country. “I think that more Power Five programs may be more excited to start these home-and-homes with us when our NET Ranking improves.”
The NCAA uses the NET Rankings to help seed and select its postseason tournaments. The Lobos finished 6-16 last season, going just 2-15 against Mountain West competition. They finished last in the conference, playing every single game outside the state of New Mexico because of the pandemic.
It lead to a change in leadership and, Pitino hopes, a change in the way others eventually perceive UNM basketball.
He said the national viewpoint of his program made things not all that simple when it came to building what will be a regular season slate of 30 or more games.
“I’m for sure open to doing 2-for-1s,” he said. “I have no problem with that. We’ve got to get this state rejuvenated again about Lobo basketball. We’ve got to get The Pit — I believe The Pit is one of the best home courts in all of college basketball. We need to get it packed again, so if we have to get creative with a 2-for-1, for sure we will do that.”
Before any of that, he admitted, he first has to find out what kind of team he has. With a full complement of 14 scholarship players on a drastically remade roster from last season, he has hit the reset button on a team that only returns six scholarship players.
“I would tell you this, from a team-wise [viewpoint] I don’t know what I have,” Pitino said. “It’s just so early. We haven’t even really started working on the court.”
All the new faces means getting to know one another and getting a chance to mesh the personalities that Pitino hopes will reshape the program. He’s taking that first step this week with a team dinner and non-basketball related team events designed to get the players and staff together for a little bonding.
That will soon include practicing with media members in attendance for the first time since the end of the 2019-20 season, when no one had even heard of COVID-19. The Lobos will open workouts to the local media next week, giving them an opportunity to start mending the chasm that has put UNM in a place not seen in these parts since before The Pit was built more than a half-century ago.
As for the schedule, that news will come soon enough.
“There’s so many moving parts,” Pitino said. “We want to put together a schedule that is great for our fans, but also makes our program better to where we’re ready come Mountain West time.”