When you ask players where the toughest place to play is in the Mountain West Conference, The Pit at the University of New Mexico is usually at, or near the top, of everybody’s list.
It was the sight of one of the greatest college basketball games in history when the late Jim Valvano’s heavy underdog North Carolina State team knocked off Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Cougars for the NCAA title back in 1983.
The Lobos, who host Nevada today at 8:15 p.m. (ESPN2, 94.3 FM), have won 81 percent of their games since the building opened. The official name of the venue is WisePies Arena, but true basketball fans always call it The Pit.
For Nevada’s first-year players it will be a treat. No doubt it will be one of the loudest arenas they’ve ever played/will play in. It truly is an experience. The Pit, because of its subterranean design, is an obstruction-free facility. The playing court sits 37-feet below street level. The court is 5,312 feet above sea level, and noise levels can get up to 125 decibels.
“Their fans are so involved,” Nevada sophomore forward Cam Oliver said Thursday afternoon. “They are so into the game. It is like a pit. It gets so loud, you can’t hear anything.”
“I’m excited to play there,” Nevada forward Jordan Caroline said. “The biggest place I played in was at Wichita State (10,500). I don’t remember how many it held, but it was sold out and it was loud.”
Caroline hasn’t seen anything yet.
Coaches will tell you a good start is the key in a hostile environment. A good start can dim the home crowd’s enthusiasm.
“They are going to want to punch us in the mouth first,” Oliver said. “The big thing is how we respond to it.
“We have to come out better, faster and stronger.”
The Pack is no stranger to play road or neutral-court games this year. Nevada has posted a 6-3 record, the only blemishes are two close losses (Fresno State and Iona), and an 18-point loss to nationally ranked Saint Mary’s in the season-opener.
Nevada is taking on yet another team with a big frontcourt.
Tim Williams, a preseason all-conference selection, is averaging 16.7 points and 7 rebounds a game. Williams hits 59 percent from the floor, and he’s coming off his second 30-point outing of the season (30 against Utah State). Then there’s 7-1 Obij Ajet, and 6-7 Sam Longwood. Longwood and Ajet don’t score much, but are solid defenders. Defending Williams will fall to either Oliver or Caroline, and the two may even alternate.
The only other double-figure scorer for the Lobos is Elijah Brown, the Preseason Player of the Year. Brown is averaging 16.7 a contest.
Williams can expect to see double-teaming throughout the game because the Lobos can’t shoot consistently from beyond the arc. Utah State doubled down on UNM with a point guard. It was sound strategy because the Lobos have struggled from the outside.
According to a recent story in the Albuquerque Journal, the Lobos are 349th out of 351 (in the country) and get just 16.4 percent of their points from beyond the arc.
Other than Brown (31.9 percent), Dane Kuiper (45.2 percent) and Jordan Hunter (41.7 percent), nobody else has stepped up from beyond the arc. The rest of the squad shoots 16 percent.
“We can’t make 3s,” New Mexico coach Craig Neal told New-Mexico area reporters Friday afternoon. “Hopefully we start making shots.
“They can shoot the ball. They make nine 3s and we make less than four. Nevada is a tough team with Oliver and (Marcus) Marshall. They are well coached and play good defense.”
Hunter, who sat out the Utah State game, is expected to return to the lineup for today’s game.
“I expect Jordan to play, but I don’t know how much he’ll play,” Neal said.
NOTES: The Lobos announced junior guard Xavier Adams is lost for the year with a knee injury. He was averaging 3.9 points and 2.3 rebounds per game. Neal said it’s the second straight year he has lost a player to an ACL tear ...New Mexico is undefeated at home with seven straight wins, six during nonconference and one in league play ... Nevada enters the game second in the conference in scoring at 77.8, second in 3-point percentage at 39 percent ...
Nevada coach Eric Musselman coached Neal in the mid-90s.