2009 Mar 16
NIT: It's The Pit for Round One
New Mexico’s University Arena – better known as “The Pit” because it’s built 37 feet underground – is a classy, old-school hoops joint, and, according to Sadler, “truly one of the best places to play in college basketball – if you’re the home team.”
It’s also where 18-12 Nebraska must try to win its opening-round NIT game Tuesday night.
“It’s a lot like Memorial Stadium,” Sadler said of the famous arena, which was named one of Sports Illustrated’s Top 20 Sporting Venues of the 20th Century. The 21-11 Lobos routinely drew more than 16,000 for Mountain West Conference games in Albuquerque, where basketball is followed with the same passion as Nebraskans show for football.
Sadler’s history at The Pit doesn’t include a win; he said Monday he’s 0-3 there. But he also happened to be present for the arena’s most memorable moment – the 1983 national title game in which North Carolina State upset Houston’s “Phi Slamma Jamma” duo of Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon 54-52 on alley oop at the buzzer.
In the 9 p.m. game televised by ESPNU, not much of that history will matter. But the Cornhuskers will have to contend with a hostile crowd and an altitude that’s higher than Boulder, Colo. Not necessarily easy for a team that lives on fierce man-to-man defense like NU.
“Oh my goodness gracious,” senior forward Ade Dagunduro joked Monday before practice. Dagunduro hadn’t been aware just how high in the sky The Pit was until a reporter told him.
NU’s leading scorer at 13 points per game, the 6-5 Dagunduro said he’ll be ready for UNM despite nursing a knee injury he suffered in the Big 12 Tournament, when he collided with Baylor 7-footer Josh Lomers.
“It’s nothing adrenaline won’t take care of,” Dagunduro said, adding that NU’s NIT berth gives him and his teammates “new life” after a disappointing 65-49 loss to Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament.
The Lobos had a similar exit from the Mountain West tournament , losing the first round to Wyoming just days after beating the Cowboys on the road. UNM had finished 12-4 in the Mountain West and had a real shot at the NCAA Tournament until the loss.
Coached by former Iowa sideline general and Indiana legend Steve Alford, New Mexico scores effectively and shoots well, utilizing the motion offense that Alford’s former coach, Bob Knight perfected over his 40 years of coaching.
“They’re a lot like Texas Tech,” Sadler said. “We’re likely to see a little more Pat Knight than Bob Knight.”
Sadler said Alford has “done a great job” of resurrecting the UNM program in the last two years. The Lobos finished 24-9 last year, losing in the NIT first round to California-Berkeley.
The quick turnaround between finding out its opponent and traveling to Albuquerque – Monday morning, Sadler wasn’t quite sure when NU would be departing for the game – leaves NU a bit uncertain as to just how the game will play out. Sadler expects Nebraska to benefit from an opponent that doesn’t know its every offensive move, especially on set plays. Conversely, the Lobos get to stay home and possibly overwhelm a Husker team that thrives on energy and defensive conviction.
Should NU win the game, it faces the winner of UAB and Notre Dame. Down the road lurks a possible quarterfinal matchup with Creighton, which is a No. 1 seed. Should the game occur, CU would host NU in the Qwest Center for the right to travel to New York for the NIT semifinals.
“I hope we get the chance to play Creighton,” Sadler said. “That means both teams won two games. That can’t be anything but good for the state of Nebraska.”
Said Dagunduro: “We want the chance to play them. It’d be great for the state.”
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