LAS VEGAS, Nev. – While neither Paul Weir, his players nor first year UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez wanted to say it directly, the sense Saturday night in the Thomas & Mack Center was that the Lobos’ ride had just come to an end.
The 82-75 Mountain West championship game win by the San Diego State Aztecs punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. For the Lobos, part of the magic of their turnaround season after starting 3-8 on the season (2-8 vs. Division I teams), having a 28-point loss to Boise State and having several other early-season hiccups later overcome by March is that all those blemishes still count.
Add in the dire financial situation of UNM athletics and the fact that Dreamstyle Arena isn’t available over the next week to host a game because of a prior contract with professional rodeo, and none of it lends itself to the likelihood of more Lobo basketball this season.
“There’s a lot that goes into it – financially, logistically, arenas,” Weir said. “There’s a lot of different layers to it, and I haven’t spent any time going through that. I know we have facility issues back home. I know there’s financial considerations for different things. And I don’t know, I’d have to go through those with Eddie and see what he thinks, and see if it even fits with all those other things. It’s not really just the heat-of-the-moment kind of emotional thing right now.”
Even the Lobos players, who had an all-in mentality to this week’s MWC tournament, didn’t seem sure how to even answer the question about whether they wanted one more game with this team, even if it wasn’t the NCAA Tournament they longed for.
“I’ll leave that up to coach,” said senior Joe Furstinger.
“No comment,” added senior Antino Jackson.
UNM’s Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) rating of 113 entering Saturday’s MWC Tournament title game probably won’t warrant an NIT invitation, nor will its KenPom.com rating of 102. A neutral-court loss to SDSU could actually improve that RPI by a few spots, but the likelihood of getting much higher is slim.
For context, the highest RPI for an “at-large” team in the 2017 NIT was 106 by a Georgia Tech team from the ACC. In fact, the lowest five RPI rankings for last season’s “at-large” NIT teams all belonged to teams in Power 5 conferences.
The worst RPI for a team outside a power conference to get an invitation to the 2017 NIT was Richmond’s 80 out of the Atlantic 10.
As for participating in a pay-to-play tournament, the finances of UNM don’t make that ideal, but the CBI tournament is run by a company to which the Lobos owe a future tournament (the 2020 Legend’s Classic in New York). The Lobos signed up for that 2020 event because it owed the Gazelle Group a $40,000 penalty for breaching its contract two years ago under former head coach Craig Neal to play in the 2016 CBI, including hosting a game in the Santa Ana Star Center. The day after a quarterfinal loss to Nevada in the MWC tournament, the Lobos backed out of the deal and agreed to play in the November 2020 event as a payback instead of the $40,000.
If playing in this year’s CBI in exchange for not paying to play in that 2020 event makes better long-term financial sense, the Lobos might go that route. But the decision likely would have been made by now.
NIT invitations come tonight. CBI slots start filling shortly thereafter and into Monday.