ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -Can it be? It appears New Mexico finally has a coach whose resume matches the notoriously high standards of the program's passionate fans.
At the very least, Steve Alford brings a marquee name and solid hoops credentials to Albuquerque, where The Pit remains nationally famous but the locals are still yearning for a national-level college basketball program.
Standing on the arena floor earlier this month, Alford reasoned that he did the right thing last spring by leaving Iowa after seven straight winning seasons.
``It was just great timing, at a great time in my life at 42, to get this start at a place like this,'' Alford said.
New Mexico fans found a coach with a 308-183 career record in 16 seasons at Iowa, Southwest Missouri State and Manchester (Ind.) College. He was 152-106 in eight seasons at Iowa, winning the Big Ten tournament twice.
Alford won an NCAA title playing for Bob Knight at Indiana and a gold medal with the United States at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
When Alford was hired in March, his hour-long news conference was staged inside the packed Student Union Building ballroom on campus, with parts televised live on Albuquerque TV stations and national cable sports outlets.
``When we heard Steve Alford was coming, it was kind of a surprise, like, 'You mean the guy who was under Bob Knight?''' center Daniel Faris said.
Alford replaced Ritchie McKay, who was fired after going 82-69 in five seasons. McKay reached the NCAA tournament only once, New Mexico's lone trip since 1999. The Lobos have never advanced past the second round.
By the time McKay departed, the town's passion for college hoops was wilting. New Mexico was 15-17 last season and McKay's overall road record was 8-41.
It was a good time for Alford to move along, too, after Iowa fans soured on his 1-3 NCAA tournament record and 61-67 conference mark. Iowa had a No. 3 seed in the 2006 NCAA tourney but blew a 17-point second-half lead and lost to Northwestern State.
``There are days where I would say I'd have liked to have done more and then there are days where, armed with what we had, I would say I think we did about all we could have done,'' Alford said, reflecting on his Iowa stay.
These days, Alford is eyes forward. He hopes to build a winner at New Mexico but warns against looking too far ahead.
``We've got a lot of stuff to get in and that's not easy when you've got a lot of inexperienced players,'' Alford said. ``The seniors, you would normally say they're experienced but in our system they're rookies.''
One of the first matters he addressed last summer, players and coach agree, was academics. Alford served notice that slacking grades and sleeping through class wouldn't be tolerated by the new administration.
``It didn't take much, just a few times running early in the morning,'' Faris recalled. ``Guys realized pretty quickly that these guys aren't messing around.''
How much running?
``Oh, man. Hours and hours. A lot of running. Too much to count,'' Faris said.
Point guard Jamaal Smith offered another way of comparing the old and new regimes.
``Last year, if you wanted to respect the coaches you could. This year, you have no choice,'' Smith said. ``You look at their past. If you don't respect them, you have no understanding of basketball history, no appreciation for the game.''
The Lobos will use a motion offense and pressure defense. They've got a talented star in senior swing guard J.R. Giddens, a Kansas transfer who led the team with a 15.8 scoring average last season but was in and out of McKay's doghouse.
They must offset the absence of senior swingman Tony Danridge, whose 12.5 scoring average and highlight-reel dunks will be missed until he returns in January from a broken leg.
``It's no secret that losing a guy like Tony is going to hurt us,'' Giddens said. ``Just look at his athleticism. It puts pressure on everybody to work harder and fill the void.''
Alford landed promising recruits in guards Dairese Gary and Jonathan Wills. He also brought in size with junior-college transfers Monquel Pegues (6-foot-10, 255 pounds) and Johnnie Harris (6-8, 250).
Alford said his coaching staff is introducing the nuances of the new system, trying to focus players on making daily improvements. He's hoping to get things fine-tuned before conference games begin in January.
As for taking charge of the Lobos, Alford pointed to one thing that reminds him of his days suiting up for Indiana.
``It gets me back in red,'' he said. ``I've been wanting to be in red for a long time.''

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