Richard Pitino took less than a day after his firing from Minnesota to jump at the chance to coach New Mexico. And like their second-year coach, the 22nd-ranked Lobos are moving fast.
New Mexico is one of three unbeaten teams left in Division I — the others being No. 1 Purdue and No. 2 Connecticut. And the Lobos (12-0) will play their first games in more than eight years with a national ranking as part of this week’s AP Top 25 schedule, starting Wednesday against Colorado State to open Mountain West Conference play followed by Saturday’s trip to Wyoming.
The program was last ranked during the 2013-14 season.
“You want to get to the stage, to the big stage where people know who you are individually as well as your program,” Pitino said Monday in an interview with The Associated Press. “It’s no different than an upstart band, a young rapper, that’s trying to go on tour to sell tickets by the show that he puts on, so he gets more recognition and opens more doors for them individually as well as the program.
“But if you go and lay an egg when it’s time for the concert, then the attention, the fan support, the all-eyes-on-you goes away.”
Pitino inherited a six-win team and his first squad went 13-19. But a win Wednesday would give the Lobos their second 13-0 start in program history (the other came in a school-record 17-0 start in 1967-68).
Success has come with the return of high-scoring guards Jamal Mashburn Jr. (16.8 points per game) and Jaelen House (16.4), and the addition of transfer big men Morris Udeze (17.5 points, 7.3 rebounds) from Wichita State and Josiah Allick (9.3, 8.2) from Missouri-Kansas City.
New Mexico has won by getting the ball inside. Only 10 Division I teams average fewer attempted 3-pointers per game than the Lobos (15.9), who are taking 74% of their shots inside the arc.
That has also helped New Mexico get to the foul line — a lot. The Lobos are second nationally by averaging 27.8 free throws, and they’re No. 1 by making 20.4 of those per game.
“We’ve done a really good job of being mature about, let’s just go where our bread is buttered and not fight it, not try to prove to people, ‘I can do this,’” Pitino said. “No, let’s put you in a position to be at the spots you need to be at to shoot the highest percentages.”
As a result, New Mexico has climbed from No. 294 in KenPom’s Division I rankings when Pitino took over to No. 66 as of Monday. And more progress could be ahead.
Purdue remained No. 1 in Monday’s poll, marking the Boilermakers’ third straight week at the top. Purdue (12-0, 2-0 Big Ten) hosts Florida A&M on Thursday, its final game before returning to league play next week.
Fifth-ranked Arizona faces an interesting test with instate rival Arizona State on Saturday, though No. 19 Kentucky’s matchup that day with Louisville doesn’t look nearly as intriguing.
Arizona (12-1, 1-1 Pac-12) has won six straight and owns KenPom’s No. 1-ranked offense (120.2 points per 100 possessions) as of Monday. The Sun Devils were ranked No. 25 last week before a blowout loss at San Francisco, though they still rank in the top 10% of Division I teams in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency (92.4 points allowed per 100 possessions).
As for Louisville-Kentucky, the Wildcats (8-3) first face Missouri on Wednesday in their Southeastern Conference opener before hosting the Cardinals (2-11), who are off to a miserable start under first-year coach Kenny Payne.
North Carolina had a rapid fall from preseason No. 1 to unranked by early December after a four-game losing streak. But the 25th-ranked Tar Heels (9-4, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) have regrouped to win four straight entering Friday’s trip to Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, No. 14 Miami (12-1, 3-0) is rolling with eight straight wins, including at home against highly ranked Virginia last week. The Hurricanes, up eight spots from last week’s poll, host Vermont on Wednesday and then visit Notre Dame on Friday in league play.
College of Charleston is the headliner just outside the Top 25.
The Cougars (12-1) host Hampton on Thursday before visiting Towson in Colonial Athletic Association play, and their only loss came at UNC. They’re within one spot of moving into the AP Top 25 for the first time since spending a week at No. 25 in December 2003.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap
AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25