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Lobos earn praise from Mountain West coaches

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Lobos earn accolades from Mountain West coaches

Saturday was all about the sold out Pit showing its love for the 12th-ranked New Mexico Lobos, who clinched their fourth Mountain West championship in the past five seasons with a 53-42 win over Wyoming.

Monday, during the weekly league coaches teleconference, it was time for Steve Alford’s peers to pile on the praise.

San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, the longest tenured coach in the Mountain West, opened his media session with a comment not about his Aztecs, but about the Lobos.

“I’ll start off by offering my congratulations to Steve Alford and his New Mexico team and staff for doing what was very, very difficult to do and that is win this league and win it with two games to go,” Fisher said. “They are to be congratulated. The rest of us will be playing for a lot still in these remaining games for both seeding for the (conference) tournament and for résumé building for postseason play.”

But they won’t be playing for a league title any more.

The UNM (25-4, 12-2 MWC) championship is all the more impressive for a league in which coaches were frequently asked in January by media on the weekly call if the league champion would have around four or maybe even five regular season losses because teams appeared to be beating each other up each week.

“They’re a team that knows how to win, whether it be by one point or 20 points,” said Dave Carter, who coaches Nevada, UNM’s Wednesday night opponent. “That’s what’s been most impressive to me is those guys know how to win on the road as well as at home.”

UNLV coach Dave Rice said the key to UNM’s championship run was their ability to win on the road in a league that makes that awfully difficult to do.

“To be 4-2 at this stage on the road is a great accomplishment for New Mexico,” Rice said. “They’re the only team in this league that has a winning record on the road in conference play and that’s why they’re the league champions.”

As for just how much UNM’s impressive run through the Mountain West might be rewarded by the NCAA selection committee, Rice said they should be considered for a No. 1 seed.

“I’m going to sound like one of those guys on TV,” Rice said, “but when you think of their body of work, 25 wins out of 29 games and … you think about them having whatever it is – 16 or 17 wins against the top 100 RPI teams and winning a conference as strong as ours with the quality of teams in this league and they now have a three game lead with two games to play and they have clinched an outright title, … they absolutely deserve consideration for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.”

ALBU-KIRK-EE: Drew Gordon won four Mountain West Players of the Week awards in the 2011-12 season. His departure from the Lobos was the biggest question mark entering this season.

His replacement, 7-foot sophomore center Alex Kirk, was awarded on Monday his third MWC Player of the Week award, sharing the distinction with Boise State guard Derrick Marks.

Kirk averaged 20.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots in wins over San Diego State and Wyoming last week. Kirk also shot 56 percent from the field, was 4-of-6 from 3-point range and 8-of-8 from the free throw line.

It is the third honor this season for Kirk, who is averaging 12.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.

“When he got cleared in late January, you could see coming,” Alford said of Kirk’s breakout year. “He put a great summer of work in. He had some really good games as a freshman so you knew how talented he was and what he could do, but anytime you’re coming off a medical redshirt that’s involving back surgery and you’re 7-foot tall, I don’t know if you can look into the crystal ball and know exactly what you’re going to get. It’s a great credit to Alex because he worked awfully hard.”

Marks averaged 22.0 points on 60 percent shooting, 6.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 3.0 steals in two wins over Nevada and Colorado State. Marks had 38 points on Saturday against Colorado State.

Kirk was also named Player of the Week on Dec. 31 and Jan. 14. UNM has had five Player of the Week selections this season (Kirk’s three; Tony Snell, Nov. 19; Kendall Williams, Feb. 25).

MOVING UP IN THE POLLS: The Lobos moved up to No. 12 in the Associated Press Top 25 on Monday and No. 11 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, up from No. 14 in both polls last week. It is the highest ranking of the season for the Lobos in each poll.

Mark Berman of the Roanoke (Va.) Times had the Lobos ranked highest at No. 6. UNM was on all 65 AP ballots and had a low ranking of No. 17.

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

— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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