ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The No. 17 New Mexico Lobos have always liked to play up the Rodney Dangerfield no respect card.
And for the most part, it’s worked.
With a chip firmly planted on their shoulders the Lobos have been the Mountain West champion in two of the past three seasons. On Saturday they became the first program in league history to win three straight league tournament titles.
But as they found out one year ago, it’s hard to have a chip on your shoulder when everyone is picking you to go to the Final Four.
Boasting a No. 3 seed in 2013, a national Top 10 ranking entering the NCAA Tournament, they became a trendy pick by several national college basketball reporters to advance deep into the Big Dance. And that was despite never having been in a Sweet 16. The Lobos lost focus and lost to No. 14 Harvard.
This year, UNM (27-6) is back to feeling jilted, especially after earning a No. 7 seed in the South Region and having to face No. 10 Stanford (21-12) on Friday in St. Louis. The winner likely faces No. 2 seed Kansas in the Round of 32.
Neal opened remarks to reporters on Monday saying “I’m not going to comment on the seeding” and finished his news conference with “I just know if you’re a BCS school you’ve got a hell of a shot to be seeded high.” In between he pointed out he will look at non-conference scheduling differently in the future and may “just schedule whoever and win as many games as I can” since having the No. 17 rated non-conference strength of schedule and league-best No. 12 RPI in the nation didn’t seem to convince the selection committee.
So just when everything seemed perfect for the Lobos to be nice and angry once again, the media went and tried throwing a monkey wrench in things. On Sunday night, and again on Monday, talking heads on radio and television, and writers on national websites and national publications started praising the Lobos once again, saying they were indeed an underseeded team capable of a deep tournament run.
Said CBS and Sports Illustrated analyst Seth Davis, “I was very surprised to see the Mountain West tournament champions … winding up as a 7 seed.” He later added, “I have the Lobos going all the way to the Elite Eight.”
His CBS colleague Doug Gottlieb has been going to bat for UNM since the nationally televised selection show when he essentially asked selection committee chairman Ron Wellman what he was thinking not seeding the Lobo higher.
So what do the Lobos do now that they somehow feel both disrespected and respected at the same time?
“I think we had some of that last year and when we did get that recognition, I think in some aspects we did let it get to our heads a bit,” senior All-American power forward Cameron Bairstow said. “I think it’s something that you’ve just got to take it as it is. We haven’t been getting a lot of recognition for most of my time here so when we do get it, you can’t really adjust (what you do). You’ve got to just listen to people inside your inner circle and just play your game.”
Neal says he’s trying hard this year to keep his team focused on the task at hand. He canceled the Sunday evening public selection show party in the Pit the program had in two of its previous three NCAA Tournament seasons to ignore the outside noise.
“I’m trying to keep my guys away from that,” Neal said. “I think last year, and you might ask them, I don’t know how they’ll answer, I think it was surprising for us we had people picking us to the Final Four, people had us as a lock for the Sweet 16. We never had that before. I think that was a lot of pressure.”
For seniors like Bairstow and guard Kendall Williams, eliminating outside distractions – be it praise or perceived slights in seeding is easier this season.
“Maybe we could have gotten a seed or two higher, but I don’t think this team needs any extra motivation unless one of their guys comes out and starts talking about our moms or something,” Williams said. “The motivation is there. The hunger is there. … I think that’s the biggest thing we’ve realized is that the days leading up to it are just as important as the day of the game.”
POLL POSITION: The Lobos on Monday moved up to No. 17 in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll of the season. The AP does not conduct another poll after the NCAA Tournament.
UNM was No. 20 a week ago and moved up after winning three games in three days last week in Las Vegas, Nev., including one over then No. 8 San Diego State, to win the MWC Tournament championship. SDSU dropped from No. 8 to No. 13.
TIX FOR KIDS: The non-profit Tix for Kids program that has sent multiple bus loads of fans to the past few Mountain West Tournaments in Las Vegas, Nev., as a fundraiser is offering travel packages to St. Louis this week for the NCAA Tournament. The bus will leave Thursday. Contact Bobby Aragon for pricing and arrangements at 980-4579.
TICKETS LEFT: UNM sold its allotment of 350 tickets for the St. Louis event, but got an additional 200 on Monday. Some of those remain and will go on sale today.
Go to the UNM ticket office in the Pit, call 505-925-5626 or go to UNMtickets.com.
Tickets cost $66 per session for upper bowl seats.