ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — With the end of the four-year run of one of the best recruiting classes in program history, the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team has scaled back the level of non-conference competition for its upcoming season.
The Lobos carried the flag for the Mountain West in terms of non-conference schedule strength and Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) in the past couple of seasons. But their 2014-15 schedule the program released Wednesday includes several teams coming off losing record seasons with RPIs well into the 200s.
The value of the RPI is debated around college basketball, but it remains one of the tools the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee uses to evaluate teams when choosing who plays in the 68-team postseason tournament.
This year’s Lobos squad is also in a state of transition with nine new faces (seven scholarship players and two walk-ons) and loses Cameron Bairstow (draft pick of the Chicago Bulls), Kendall Williams (last week signed a pro contract with a team in Italy) and Alex Kirk (hoping to make the Cleveland Cavaliers roster).
“I am looking forward to our entire schedule,” UNM coach Craig Neal said in a statement from the school. “The ESPN tournament in Puerto Rico has an outstanding field that includes (defending national champion) UConn, Dayton, West Virginia, Texas A&M and many other good programs. It will help prepare us for our conference schedule, which will be challenging as always. Every game is tough in the Mountain West.”
Matchups for the Puerto Rico tournament have yet to be determined.
On March 17, two days after his 27-win team won its third consecutive Mountain West tournament title with a second win of the season over nationally ranked San Diego State, Neal made it clear he wasn’t happy with the Lobos earning a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament. He hinted that his future scheduling philosophy would de-emphasize playing quality teams out of conference because he felt his team’s body of work warranted a much higher seed.
“The only thing I will say is we did our work,” Neal said then. “We’re the 17th ranked schedule out of conference. We beat San Diego State, who was in the top 10, twice. We beat Cincinnati who’s 13th in the country, or whatever. We did what we’re supposed to do. I’m going to look at it differently now, because why wouldn’t I just schedule whoever and win as many games as I can? It really didn’t make a difference.”
The Lobos’ upcoming season includes two games with in-state rival and fellow NCAA Tournament participant New Mexico State (Dec. 3 in the Pit and Dec. 20 in Las Cruces).
Of the team’s other seven non-conference opponents, only Valparaiso (18-16) had a winning record last season, and none of those teams had an RPI of better than 181.
UNM’s 12-game non-conference slate includes six home games. There will also be the three neutral court games at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 20-23) and road games at Valparaiso (Dec. 6), NMSU (Dec. 20) and Grand Canyon University (Dec. 23). The Valparaiso and GCU road games are the back ends of home-and-home contracts. Valparaiso played in the Pit in 2012 and GCU in 2013.
UNM will also play two NCAA Division II opponents in exhibition games in the Pit – Nov. 1 vs. Western New Mexico and Nov. 7 vs. Adams State.
As for the 18-game Mountain West schedule, the Lobos open at home on New Year’s Eve against Fresno State. Games against last year’s Mountain West champion San Diego State will be Jan. 7 (in San Diego) and Feb. 18 in the Pit.
Due to the league’s unbalanced 18 game schedule, UNM will not play at San Jose State nor host Nevada. A year ago, UNM did not play at Air Force or at home vs. Fresno State. Teams won’t miss games against the same opponent in back-to-back seasons.
UNM had 14 of 18 league games picked up on the initial release of broadcasted games with seven games on the CBS Sports Network and seven on the ESPN family of networks. ROOT Sports now gets an opportunity to pick up additional games.
Per the league’s television contracts with CBS Sports and ESPN, CBS gets first rights to an unspecified number of league games. Once that number is met, according to MWC associate commisioner Dan Butterly, CBS and ESPN then alternate picks in a draft style set up for game broadcast rights.