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Road Wins Good for Lobos' Aspirations

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —

RPI replications have 18-3 New Mexico in the top six nationally

As the New Mexico Lobos stepped off Southwest Airlines Flight No. 376 from Denver on Thursday afternoon, the day after their 63-59 road win over the Wyoming Cowboys, they were greeted with their usual array of local well-wishers.

“Way to right the ship,” one Southwest Airlines employee told coach Steve Alford and associate head coach Craig Neal on the Jetway from their airplane to the terminal.

The coaches smiled, thanked the man and went on their way.

Saturday
Nevada at No. 20 New Mexico, 6 p.m.
TV: NBC Sports Network
Radio: 770 AM

The sentiment is a bit baffling for the Lobos.

Yes, they lost at San Diego State on Saturday 55-34 with their lowest point total in the shot-clock era, but the notion that UNM somehow had a sinking ship doesn’t seem to fit with everything the team has accomplished thus far.

Wednesday’s win at Wyoming improved the 20th-ranked Lobos to 18-3 overall, and at 5-1 in Mountain West play, they sit alone atop the standings of a league in which they were picked to finish third.

When Thursday morning’s RPI replications came out from several websites across the country (the official NCAA RPI rankings are updated each Monday), the Lobos had an RPI of No. 5 and a strength of schedule ranking of No. 4 by ESPN. Both CBS Sports and RealTimeRPI.com project the Lobos RPI at No. 6 and No. 5 in schedule strength.

Hardly the stuff a sinking ship of a season is made.

“They’re 18-3 against incredible competition, and … 8-2 away from home,” Alford said. “They just continue to do a lot of good things.”

More important than any of those numbers for a team trying to gain at least a share of its fourth regular season Mountain West championship in Alford’s sixth season is the team’s position in the plus/minus game most programs around the country keep close tabs on, though rarely get reported.

“We play plus/minus games,” Alford explained. “You get nothing for a home win. You get minus-1 for a home loss and you get plus-1 for a road win. We’re at a plus-2. If we can get to plus-2 at the midpoint, that at least puts you in a position where you can control some things.”

The Lobos may be 5-1 in league play, but throwing out the home victories – games Alford says championship teams have to win – the Lobos have gone 2-1 on the road in league play, putting them at plus-2.

Colorado State, UNLV, San Diego State and Air Force are all at plus-1 through six games, while Boise State (even), Nevada (minus-1), Wyoming (minus-2) and Fresno State (minus-3) follow.

The point of the exercise: winning on the road is how league titles are secured.

“We’ve won three of these championships, and each of those championship seasons we’ve been able to win on the road,” Alford said.

Which is why he also wasn’t shy about pointing out just how big Wednesday’s win at Wyoming is since his team will now play the next two games at home before reaching the eight-game midway point of its conference schedule.

“I thought this was a pivotal one,” Alford said, “because we go home for two – two very difficult games to get to the midpoint – and this (win in Wyoming) gives us the opportunity now to take care of business and be in a really good position going into the second half of the season.”

With 10 games remaining in UNM’s regular season, the Lobos have five home games and five road games.

COACH’S DECISION: UNM junior guard Demetrius Walker did not play in Wednesday’s game at Wyoming. The 6-2 Walker wasn’t hurt, sick or being disciplined. He just did not play.

“Just a coach’s decision,” Alford said. “Nothing more to it than that.”

Alford would not elaborate on the future playing time possibilities for Walker, who started UNM’s first four games of the season before seeing his minutes steadily decrease as he suffers through an offensive slump that is almost painful for fans to watch.

He went 0-for-January from the field, missing all eight shots he took in four games in the month.

Walker has missed the last 15 shots he’s taken. He has not made a shot in a game since the 9:35 mark of the second half at Cincinnati on Dec. 27. While he’s scored five points since that bucket, which happened to put the Lobos up 47-43 in a game they eventually won, they’ve all been from the free-throw line.

Walker did not play Jan. 12 against Fresno State, but that was due to illness. Saturday at San Diego State, Walker played 89 seconds and fired up a contested 3-pointer early in the shot clock, and 34 seconds after he got into the game.

That prompted Alford to send Tony Snell back to the scorers’ table where he checked in for Walker at the next dead ball.

LOBOS LINKS: Roster | Schedule/Results | Geoff Grammer’s blog

— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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