It can be pretty difficult to determine where the best place to watch college basketball is, but there’s a general consensus that a lively arena environment can go a long way toward separating the contenders from the pretenders. Near-unanimous acclaim for a particular coliseum, at least within this thesis, dictates that the site in question is top-notch. With that in mind, welcome to The Pit, home of the New Mexico Lobos and one of Sports Illustrated’s Top 20 Sporting Venues of the 20th Century.
“What a terrific atmosphere for college basketball. Great building, great history, 18,000 screaming fans. It’s big-time hoops, baby,” ESPN commentator Dick Vitale once remarked when asked about the hallowed halls in Albuquerque. Since opening in 1966, The Pit has seen thousands upon thousands of Lobos fans pass through its doors. Put another way, New Mexico supporters have finished in the national Top 25 for attendance every year since inception. It’s no easy feat to earn the title “loudest arena in the country,” but what makes the descriptor truly extraordinary is the fact that the school’s most renowned tradition consists of nothing more than slapping hands. The Stand and Clap, which sounds exactly like the name implies, requires spectators to do just that while both teams search for their first basket. Once the ball goes through the hoop, the crowd erupts, and it becomes apparent once again why The Pit is so revered.
The men’s hoops program can trace its roots all the way back to 1899, but outsiders didn’t begin to pay attention until the 1960s, when Bob King took up the mantle of head coach. While the club would post 23 victories in ‘63-64 and break through in the national polls for the first time, it was the emergence of big man Mel Daniels the following year that had fans talking. Over the course of three seasons with the Lobos, Daniels averaged 20 points and 11 boards per game, and glided into the record books in ‘66-67 when he became the school’s first hoopster to earn All-American honors. For his part, King accumulated 175 victories over the course of 10 seasons, guided New Mexico to two Western Athletic Conference titles, and led the program to their first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament in ‘68.
The Lobos would book ten showings in the Big Dance between 1969 and 2008, which made coach Steve Alford’s arrival in ‘07 all the more satisfying. Under the tutelage of the former Indiana star, the Lobos spent much of their time with their fangs out, ready to attack. The school joined the Mountain West Conference in ‘99, and with Alford at the helm, captured the league crown in ‘09, ‘10, ‘12 and ‘13. Most essentially, New Mexico returned to the March Madness stage three times (‘10, ‘12, ‘13) before Alford departed.
Inside The Pit, there may not be as many banners hanging from the rafters as there are at other schools, but the fans make up for it with unbridled enthusiasm. After all, they have a title to defend, one that they have to compete for every time their beloved Lobos step on the court.