ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — You read it here, first: The Lobos are going to the Sweet Sixteen … on their way to the Final Four.
The University of New Mexico men’s basketball team makes its 12th NCAA Tournament appearance tonight when it plays Montana in an East Region first-round game in not-so-east San Jose, Calif.
Third-seeded UNM (29-4), which has never won consecutive games in the Big Dance, will win four over the next two weeks.
Now, before my sports editor, Randy Harrison, forces a drug test on me, let me map out how the road will unfold for the Lobos.
To start, can we all agree that coach Steve Alford’s team is as mentally tough as any other in the country? That inner strength will come in handy tonight if the Lobos come out tight against the No. 14-seeded Grizzlies (22-9).
Never fear; Dairese Gary, Roman Martinez and Darington Hobson each will make a play during crunch time as the Lobos prevail, 75-67.
The win advances New Mexico to the second round Saturday to face No. 11-seed Washington, the Pac-10 tournament champs who stay on a roll with an upset of sixth-seeded Marquette.
Washington depends on the inside-outside tandem of senior forward and Pac-10 Player of the Year Quincy Pondexter and guard Isaiah Thomas (named after but no relation to the Isiah Thomas who starred for the Detroit Pistons and killed the Continental Basketball Association).
The Lobos get the upper hand when Gary uses his size and strength to get the 5-foot-8 Thomas in foul trouble, and Hobson, the Player of the Year in a superior conference, nullifies Pondexter’s game.
A Phillip McDonald 3-pointer with less than 7 minutes left gives UNM the lead for good, Gary goes 7-for-8 from the free-throw line down the stretch and the Lobos advance to the Sweet Sixteen with an 80-77 victory.
Awaiting UNM is No. 2 seed West Virginia, the Big East tournament champion that has size galore.
Six-foot-7 swingman Da’Sean Butler, who beat Cincinnati and Georgetown in the Big East tourney with last-second shots, will be flanked by sophomore big men Kevin Jones and Devin Ebanks, 6-8 and 6-9, respectively.
The Lobos — playing without a care in the world after reaching the Sweet Sixteen — come out on fire from behind the arc and force the Mountaineers to play catch-up for the majority of the game.
West Virginia takes the lead midway through the second half, but the effects of a physical Big East tournament and two NCAA Tournament games take its toll.
Gary and fellow point guard Jamal Fenton get the Mountaineers to play an up-tempo game down the stretch, and UNM wins 69-65.
At this point, you’re probably saying to yourself, “Archuleta, that is some expert analysis, but you’re brain-damaged if you think the Lobos can beat Kentucky to get to the Final Four.”
You’re right — not about the brain-damage. UNM probably can’t beat Kentucky.
Thankfully, No. 4 Wisconsin can, using its deliberate pace to upset the top-seeded but youthful Wildcats in the other regional semifinal.
Guards Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon flank 6-10 forward Jon Leuer to lead Wisconsin.
The Badgers’ style of play, however, will allow New Mexico to hang around.
Hobson will hit a trey with 2 minutes left to give the Lobos a 54-53 lead, and a put-back of his own miss gives UNM a 58-56 lead with 15 seconds left.
The Lobos pack in their defense, and Hughes misses a 3 at the buzzer. Let the dance to Indianapolis begin.
Unbelievable? So was George Mason’s run to the Final Four in 2006.