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Analysis: Who will be the next Lobos coach? Some ideas

April 9, 2017

The clock is ticking, and the University of New Mexico men’s basketball fans are starting to sweat.

As the search for the program’s next head coach begins its second week, the relative silence the UNM athletic director Paul Krebs has operated under regarding potential candidates or possible hires has some in Loboland looking for any information about who might be the next top man to walk down The Pit ramp.

That can partially explain to brief chatter about rumors Thursday night that San Antonio Spurs assistant coach and Albuquerque Academy graduate James Borrego was tabbed to take over the position.

Add to that the upcoming national signing period for basketball that starts Wednesday, which has many fans worried about how a protracted search might impact the incoming recruiting class former head coach Craig Neal had for the 2017-18 season.

The past week saw drips and drabs of information leaked to the public, but little of it seemed to indicate that a solid pool of candidates has emerged since the March 31 dismissal of Neal. However, it might be fun to handicap the race to find the coach who will sit in the “first chair” of the Lobos’ bench based on the limited information out there.

So, The New Mexican will give its odds on the following candidates filling that void, and you might find a surprise or two in the list:

• Borrego (Hiring odds: 3-1). Borrego is the local boy who emerged as the top candidate due to Thursday’s reports. He is fully aware of the fishbowl he would encounter at UNM, but his coaching pedigree is hard to ignore. Borrego has almost a decade of coaching experience with one of the most storied NBA franchises, and is the top assistant right now to longtime head coach Gregg Popovich.

Borrego also has 30 games of head coaching with the Orlando Magic in 2015, plus 14 years as an assistant coach in the NBA with three teams. Fans might be more interested in his stint from 2001-03 as an assistant with the University of San Diego, of which he was a part of a the 2002-03 team that reached the NCAA Tournament.

The knock will be his college basketball inexperience, which really means recruiting. Can Borrego adjust to the grind of hitting the road to find future Lobos, as well assembling a coaching staff that can do the same? His time in the NBA can be helpful in that he knows what it takes for players to excel at that level, but Borrego has to convince players New Mexico is the place to begin that path.

• Joe Dooley, Florida Gulf Coast head coach (5-1). Dooley was the first name that dropped as a candidate, as he reportedly had discussions with Krebs about the opening while the two were in Phoenix last weekend for the Final Four. Dooley has the benefit of also knowing the lay of the land in Albuquerque, as he was an assistant coach under Fran Fraschilla’s turbulent reign from 1999-2002.

Dooley took over at FGCU after Andy Enfield led “Lob City” to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 in 2013, and guided the Eagles back to the NCAA Tournament for the past two seasons.

A noted recruiter, Dooley spent 10 years as an assistant at Kansas, a perennial national power, after his time at UNM and was a part of the 2007-08 national championship team.

The problem with Dooley, though, is his association with Fraschilla, which Lobos fans do not remember fondly since it came on the heels of Dave Bliss’ successful run of seven NCAA Tournament appearances in nine seasons. Also, Dooley has a penchant for chasing jobs, as he was rumored to be a candidate for several openings over the past two years — including UMass and North Carolina-Wilmington this spring.

• Scott Cross, University of Texas-Arlington head coach (10-1). Cross emerged on the radar screen over the past couple of days, as reports of Krebs and regents traveling to Dallas surfaced. He does check the “coaching experience” box with 11 years with the Mavericks, but fans will probably view his 204-141 record and one NCAA Tournament appearance as lacking.

On the plus side is that Texas-Arlington reached the postseason the past two Marchs — something the Lobos didn’t do. Of course, playing in the CIT Tournament and the NIT Tournament does not excite a fan base that wants Mountain West Conference titles and NCAA Tournament appearances.

• Mark Gottfried, former North Carolina State head coach (25-1). Perhaps the most polished candidate of the group, Gottfried has the most head-coaching experience (stops at Murray State, Alabama and N.C. State). He also coached teams beyond the “first weekend” of the tournament — something that hasn’t happened at UNM in four decades.

He guided the Crimson Tide to the Elite Eight in 2004, and got the Wolfpack to the Sweet 16 twice. In 20 years of coaching, Gottfried-coached teams made it to the postseason (NCAA and NIT) 15 times.

Now for the bad news: he resigned at mid-season at Alabama and N.C. State fired him. Some of the teams he had benefited from playing in a tougher conference, which helped his teams reach the NCAA Tournament. His teams hit double-figure losses in nine of his last 10 seasons, with losing records in his last two years with the Wolfpack.

He expressed interest in the position soon after it opened, but his candidacy seems to have stalled since then.

• The Unknown Candidate (2-1): Wait, what’s this? Well, because the names attached to this job are few and far between, that in itself should be a telling sign Krebs is shielding his interviews and candidates not just from the public, but probably from employees in the department.

History also should be a lesson. When Fraschilla resigned in March 2002, speculation of a wide variety of candidates ran rampant (former Chicago Bulls head coach Tim Floyd, Cal-Santa Barbara head coach Bob Williams and Dana Altman when he was at Creighton were among them) and led to some poorly timed misinformation.

Several media outlets reported late in the evening of March 28 that Arizona State head coach Rob Evans was UNM’s choice to take over the post. When Lobo fans woke up the next morning, they learned Oregon State’s Ritchie McKay was the next head coach.

So, chances are your next UNM head coach is probably someone you haven’t heard or read about yet.