LAS VEGAS, N.M. (AP) -It was a remarkable basketball season at New Mexico Highlands, scene of an impressive and potentially historic turnaround under first-year coach Joe Harge.
The Cowboys (20-8) went from a 1-25 record in 2007-08 to champion of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference's West division this season.
According to the NCAA, it represented an 18-game improvement that is among the best ever in any division. South Carolina-Aiken set the all-divisions record with an 18-game improvement a year ago.
``The season isn't complete yet so I won't have a listing of most improved teams until that time,'' NCAA statistician Sean Straziscar said in an e-mail.
Regardless of how it's calculated, the Cowboys enjoyed a super season. Harge was named RMAC coach of the year and four players won postseason honors.
``We had good kids,'' Harge said. ``Don't get me wrong. We had our bumps and bruises. We had our yelling matches. But in the end, you can't script what happened. The stars lined up.''
week's RMAC tournament and didn't receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Division II tournament.
``Their kid hit a heck of a shot. It was a great game, a playoff game,'' Harge said.
Fans who follow basketball in New Mexico might recognize Harge. His father, Ira Harge, was a college star for the New Mexico Lobos during the 1960s and Joe Harge was a prep standout 20 years later at St. Pius High in Albuquerque.
Harge played college ball at Oregon State under the late Ralph Miller.
He credits his success at Highlands to Miller's fundamentals, to motivational tactics he learned from Michael Cooper, the former New Mexico and Los Angeles Lakers star, and to chats with ex-Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson.
He also cited help from his boss - former Highlands coach Ed Manzanares, now the school's athletic director.
``I was honored with the coach of the year award but it had nothing to do with me,'' Harge said.
But what a job he did.
Shortly after taking over, Harge held tryouts - he called them ``evaluations'' - that gutted the previous squad. Only two players returned and an assistant coach left for personal reasons during preseason drills.
``An inexperienced staff. An inexperienced team,'' Harge said.
ts of the program.
The money was used to resurface the gymnasium floor, install new lockers and hire a second assistant. That coach turned out to be Harge's older brother, Ira Harge Jr., who was looking to get back into basketball after a 19-year break.
``Joe did a great job of being creative with the money and getting it done,'' said Manzanares, who coached the Cowboys for five seasons and understands the RMAC's 10-hour bus trips and shoestring budgets.
Still, those challenges weren't reflected in the results.
The team's leader, Roman Andrade, was a first-team All-RMAC selection. Rashad Peterson and Chris Dunn were named to the West division's second team and Mindaugus Markevicius was the division freshman of the year.
``One thing about Joe is that he knew he'd be a head coach somewhere, so he was ready,'' Manzanares said. ``He had his game plan in place since last year. To say he hit the ground running is an understatement.''
For the X's and O's, Harge drew from his experiences.
He played professionally in Europe, became a high school coach in Denver, was an assistant at Arkansas-Little Rock and coached the ABA's Arkansas Rim Rockers. That's where he met Richardson and studied the coach's tenacious pressure game.
Harge said Richardson's approach was similar to what Miller taught at Oregon State.
re you're going to crack, then you'd get steals and layups,'' Harge said. ``Nolan's teams were so athletic that he would just let his kids go.''
The influences were apparent at Highlands all season. Harge added motivational techniques he learned while working in the NBA's D-League, when Cooper was head coach of the Albuquerque Thunderbirds.
``As a coach you hope to evolve and look for new ideas,'' Harge said. ``But my basic philosophy of basketball isn't going to change.''
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