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ALBUQUERQUE — It’s been an interesting ride from the get-go. And, despite the ups and downs, Alex Kirk would scarcely have it any other way.
Kirk, the 7-foot center for the University of New Mexico Lobos, will embark on his third appearance in the NCAA tournament starting Friday when the seventh-seeded Lobos meet the 10th-seeded Stanford Cardinal in the opening round.
To say the least, it’s been an eventful 12 months for the Lobos, and for Kirk.
Kirk was the standout center playing for Los Alamos High School, who graduated in 2010 and went on to play for UNM.
Now, as a junior — in terms of athletic eligibility, at least, as he finished up his undergraduate student work already — Kirk has rode the wave of a big 2013-14 season at UNM.
This season, which saw the Lobos go 27-6 and win their third consecutive Mountain West tournament championship, could’ve gone a number of different ways, and no one is more aware of that than the UNM big man.
Last March, right before the NCAA tournament and right after he agreed to terms on a hefty, 10-year contract with the school, Steve Alford left UNM to take over UCLA. That move, along with the implosion that was the Lobos’ first round loss to Harvard after earning a No. 3 seed, could’ve sent the program into a tailspin.
“It was tough, I think it’d be tough on anyone,” said Kirk, who sat down with the Los Alamos Monitor Monday afternoon. “We agree with coach Alford, you’ve got to take that opportunity. That’s a promotion. You’ve got to be able to go be the head basketball coach at the University of California at Los Angeles. That’s huge. He had that opportunity and he took it.”
UCLA, as anyone who even pays faint attention to college basketball knows, is a storied program, built by the great coach John Wooden. Running UCLA is a job many coaches aspire to.
But the move also came as a blow to the system for UNM in general and Kirk was no exception.
“He’s almost like a fatherly figure in many of our lives,” Kirk said of Alford, who was one of the first collegiate coaches that recruited him as a prep player and whom Kirk credits for a lot of his success as an underclassman.
Kirk, who had his pick of a slew of colleges interested in his services before signing with UNM, said he was far from alone among the Lobos in sharing that fatherly view of Alford.
“I’m lucky, I’m close to my family, but some of these guys aren’t really close,” he said. “You lose somebody like (Alford), and it changes. A lot of your perspective changes. He kind of got ripped from us.”
Of course, the job was awarded to Craig Neal, who led the Lobos to the best record in school history for a first-year head coach.
Neal turned out to be the stabilizing factor UNM needed for the team and for Kirk, who considered leaving the Lobo program following Alford’s departure.
“We were kind of able to stay together,” Kirk said. “If coach Neal had left, I honestly don’t know what would’ve happened. A lot of changes would’ve been happening. I’m happy we’re still all here and we have one last chance to circle the troops and see how far we can take this thing.”
There is little doubt left about how far the former Los Alamos big can go.
Kirk, arguably the most dominant player in the history of Hilltopper basketball, has become among the statistical leaders in the history of UNM’s bigs.
Among the all-time leaders at the school, he stacks up very well. In 2013-14, he turned in a defensive season that placed him sixth all-time in blocks — 85 and counting — and with his 8 points against San Diego State in the MW championship game, became a member of the Lobos’ storied 1,000-point club.
He will finish his career as no worse than the eighth-best rebounder at UNM — his 6.8 rebounds per game puts him at a clip just shy of Lobo great Luc Longley — and fourth-best shot-blocker.
How long will that career with the Lobos continue? Although he still has a year of athletic eligibility left, Kirk said he hasn’t made up his mind.
“Right now, all my energy focused on what’s in front of me, the NCAA tournament,” he said. “It’s hard to say like, ‘hey, what’s going to be after this season? But I’m kind of taking it like, ‘hey, this could be my last NCAA tournament, or it may not be.
“Obviously after the season, after all that works out, I’ll sit down with Pops and I’ll sit down with my mom and my sister and the coaches will be involved a little and we’ll see what’s best for me. And honestly, we’re going to weigh all the options, if that’s go to the draft, if that’s come back to New Mexico, come back and play college somewhere else. All of those are options, so we’ll have to sit down and figure that out.”
Kirk’s “Pops,” of course, is Alan Kirk, Los Alamos’ municipal judge and Hilltopper head coach during Alex’s career.
This season, Kirk posted his biggest point-scoring contest in an early season loss to Massachusetts, dropping in 32 points, and grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds in a key victory over UNLV in early February.
Last summer, Kirk was selected to represent Team USA at the World University Games in Kazan, Russia, joining some of the top talent in the country, including Creighton’s Doug McDermott and Louisville’s Luke Hancock.
One of the players that also tried out for the team was Chasson Randle, a very solid player for Stanford’s Cardinal.
In preseason 2013-14, he was among the players on the “watch list” for the Wooden Award, an annual award presented to the top collegiate player in the country.
Although he had a very good season, averaging 13.6 points and 8.7 boards, Kirk’s play was overshadowed by fellow UNM post Cameron Bairstow, who posted one of the Lobos’ best statistical seasons in history. Bairstow, a senior, averaged 20.3 points per game, hitting 55.6 percent of his attempts from the floor, and grabbing 7.4 rebounds per contest.
Should Kirk elect to turn pro, he would bring a lot to the table. Along with his height and his 7-foot, 2-inch wingspan, Kirk also has excellent shooting range for a big man — he is a competent spot-up shooter and has hit 35 3-pointers in his career, including 12 this season — and can even put the ball on the floor when he needs to.
This season, Kirk had to sit out two games due to a foot injury — road games against Colorado State and Utah State — but said he was able to get his legs back in a short period of time and finish out the MW season strong.
Kirk said heading into the NCAA tournament that he’s not worried about the team’s performance against Harvard last year — the Lobos were a No. 3 seed in the West Region, but fell to the 14th-seeded Crimson 68-62 in Salt Lake City. Harvard nailed a whopping 9 3-pointers in that game, while UNM played a shaky first half and uneven second half and never found any rhythm.
But that game is in the past and Kirk said he’s thrilled about the opportunity to go back and do it again.
“It’s kind of a dream to be able to go to the tournament,” he said. “Not many kids from Los Alamos, N.M., have been able to say, ‘hey, I’m going to go play for the best team in my state,’ and be able to take that to the NCAA tournament. Hopefully, we can make some noise.”
Kirk thinks the team should have some momentum after its win in the MW tournament, toppling No. 1 seed San Diego State in the championship game, the last of three very tough games the Lobos had to win to defend their conference title.
And the Lobos’ fan base, as well as his personal cheering squad, have been a big part of that.
“I really want to thank everybody from Los Alamos that have really supported me,” he said. “The people from Los Alamos that have really stuck with me from the beginning, Los Alamos and White Rock, that’s where I’m from, just to have their support and see if we can get this thing done. Let’s see if we can get a kid from Los Alamos to the Sweet 16.“