Team preview: New Mexico

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

New Mexico marks the 40th anniversary of The Pit with an $8 million fan-friendly facelift compliments of the state's governor, Bill Richardson.

That's on top of the $4.2 million practice facility named for former athletic director Rudy Davalos.

"It has been almost 23 years since Jim Valvano and North Carolina State won the national championship in The Pit. If it is to continue to be one of the best arenas in college basketball, it has to be updated and this is the first step," Richardson said at his press conference in January announcing a total of $15 million earmarked for athletic facilities at the school.

Unchanged will be the walk down the steep ramp when visitors emerge from the locker room and a trudge back up the ramp at halftime and after games.

With the facility improvements, anniversary celebration and ambitious overhaul of ticket pricing structure, the heat is on Ritchie McKay in his fourth season, although McKay has righted the ship after producing a 24-32 record in his first two seasons. The program resumed its traditional winning ways, going 33-20 the last two years. McKay needs a product to draw fans to more than just fabled bricks and mortar.

Once regarded as something of a coaching vagabond with two-year stays at his first three schools, McKay and his staff have dug in their heels in Albuquerque. He has learned to accept the fish bowl scrutiny as part of a tradeoff for one of the best home venues in the West.

"When you lose, it's critical," McKay said. "When you win, they want you to win more."

No one wants to win more than the fiery McKay. He thinks the Mountain West could be this year's Missouri Valley and he intends to be among the candidates for an NCAA Tournament berth, with or without a league tournament championship. He answered longtime criticism of non-league scheduling (the same criticism also directed as his predecessors) with an influx of Big 12 opponents, Valley champ Wichita State, and the Las Vegas Holiday Classic with a second game against either USC or Bob Huggins-coached Kansas State.

"We felt we were going to have a good team and want to put ourselves in position so if we do well in conference, we could be an at-large pick based on the schedule we play," McKay said.

That's a fairly ambitious scheduling step for a team with just one returning starter -- 6-5 junior swingman Tony Danridge (8.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg) -- who produced modest stats a year ago.