The University of New Mexico women’s basketball team traveled by bus for Thursday’s Mountain West Conference opener at Air Force.
It won’t keep the Lobos under anyone’s radar.
UNM (12-1) will tip off at Clune Arena with the best non-conference record in program history and by far the Mountain West’s best RPI (ratings percentage index) this season at No. 18 nationally. Nevada has the league’s second-best RPI ranking at 110.
The Lobos’ solid body of work certainly has its upside. Coach Mike Bradbury’s team has put itself in a position to merit consideration for an NCAA at-large bid if it does not win the Mountain West tournament come March.
“Having your RPI in the top 20 to start conference play is where you want to be,” Bradbury said. “Now we have to keep improving and play the way we’re supposed to play in the Mountain West.”
The Lobos know that latter objective will be difficult to accomplish. Middling records and low RPI numbers aside, the MWC has numerous capable title contenders outside of Albuquerque. All of them figure to have their sights set on the 12-1 Lobos.
“We’ll have a huge target on our backs,” senior Alex Lapeyrolerie said. “The last few years it’s been Colorado State with the great record and everyone’s trying to go get them. Now that’s going to be New Mexico. Everyone will be comin’ after us.”
It starts Thursday night at Clune Arena, where winless Air Force will be looking to spring an ambush. UNM has dominated the series, winning 39 of the last 40 meetings, but the Falcons have been more competitive than their 0-11 record suggests. They dropped a 62-50 decision to then-No. 3 Louisville in their most-recent outing.
“Air Force is really good defensively,” Bradbury said, “and they want to keep the game extremely slow. They really pressure you and try to disrupt everything, so we have to find ways to pick up the tempo. If we don’t, this game will be a lot closer than people might think.”
Going into the opener, New Mexico appears to have set itself up as the Mountain West’s team to beat. UNM was picked fourth in the league’s preseason poll but earned the MWC’s best pre-conference victory over then-No. 16 Marquette and has gone 3-1 against Power Conference foes.
But résumé-builders won’t help the Lobos much in league play.
“It’s a whole new ballgame in conference,” senior Laneah Bryan said. “Teams know our plays, they know our personnel and there’s always crazy games. I’m sure it will be more of the same this year.”
Bradbury also pointed out that UNM faces a particularly tough conference schedule with one game apiece against Nevada and San Jose State in the unbalanced, 18-game format. The Lobos face each of the top seven opponents according to the MWC’s preseason poll twice. Among the top contenders only Boise State has a schedule of similar difficulty, while UNLV faces Colorado State and Wyoming just once apiece.
“The schedule is tilted against us,” Bradbury said, “and you can bet we’re going to get everyone’s best shot. But we’ve got everyone healthy and we’re ready to get after it. We just have to make sure we give everyone else our best shot every time out.”
New Mexico at Air Force
6 p.m., 610 AM/95.9 FM, themwc.com