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Emptying the notebook: Huge week for the Mountain, but Lobos ride ends in tears

LAS VEGAS, NEV. — Here are some parting thoughts, quotes, tweets and other commentary I have as I sign off from Las Vegas after a week of basketball and after Saturday’s 82-75 San Diego State win over the New Mexico Lobos in the Mountain West Tournament championship game:

The Mountain’s big week

For a couple seasons, the consensus this time of year was the dwindling attendance and one-bid league nature of the Mountain West Conference might just be here to stay.

Not so fast, my friend.

Over the past couple weeks, but especially this past week, the league announced loud and clear it still has a little gas in the tank.

No, it may never be a Power 5-6-7 conference (whatever number you want to put there for college basketball), but make no mistake, the league is back to trending upward.

First, the word around the arena was the athletic directors meetings were not only good on the Gonzaga joining the league front, but glowing. It’s not a done deal, but it sounds about as close as can be.

Second, with Nevada’s loss, the league will get two teams into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a couple years, a huge step back toward national relevancy.

And then there was that matter of that hell of a game that was played on Saturday.

It appears clear as day two of the league’s three pillar programs — UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico, which everybody seems to agree have to be good for the league to be good — not only survived the transition seasons under first year head coaches, but exceeded expectations.

The Aztecs, under longtime assistant Brian Dutcher, look today like the best team in the league as the head back to the NCAA Tournament. And the Lobos, under first year head coach Paul Weir, stood toe-to-toe with them in a season that was supposed to be a rebuilding project.

Saturday’s game was, frankly, exciting and a great show for the nationally-televised CBS audience to watch as the league tries to rebuild its brand a little bit.

“Two of the greatest fan bases in this conference were here tonight, New Mexico and San Diego State,” Dutcher said. “And I thought it was a great environment for a championship game.”

He wasn’t lying.

And, yes, the league’s third pillar program, UNLV, seems to be heading toward year three of its rebuild, but, hey! Two out of three ain’t bad on that whole three pillars of the league front.

(Truth is, if Gonzaga comes, and considering Nevada has dominated the league with back-to-back regular season titles, maybe it’s time to reconsider UNLV’s place in this pillar discussion)

Back to the title game, where the league’s two best traveling fan bases showed again that a Saturday afternoon game in March in the Thomas & Mack can again be electric.

As for the future of the one time must-see UNM and SDSU rivalry?

“I told Dutch before the game this is going to be a real fun game to be a part of and I hope our two programs can get back to the point where we have a lot of these going forward,” said Weir.

If that’s true, and considering Gonzaga might be coming along and might bring BYU with it, and the fact that Nevada appears built for the longterm if Musselman doesn’t bolt for greener pastures (and more green from a power conference program), then the Mountain is well on it’s way to solidifying its spot as the best of the rest outside the power conferences.

And anyone who has followed me the past couple of seasons knows I have hardly been an apologist for this league.

So, credit where it is due. Congratulations to the Mountain West Conference on winning the week.

Game story

Here was the game story filed shortly after the press conferences ended Saturday.

And here is something I wrote on the Lobos unlikely, but not yet impossible, NIT or CBI chances:

Are the fans back?

It was clear this past season, or at least the past few weeks, had as much pride and enthusiasm about a Lobo basketball team as Albuquerque has seen in some time.

Much of the wait-and-seers of the once proud Lobo fan base seemed to come around as the team rode a seven game win streak into Saturday’s title game.

The good news there is ticket sales and and butts in the seats should start to climb again next year after this all-time Pit low season in average home attendance.

“I’ve had a very small sample size in terms of interactions with people (fans of the program),” Weir said. “But what there’s been has just been incredible — them communicating to me how much they love Lobo basketball again and how much they bought in and how they came to the (MWC) Tournament for the first time or how they’re going to buy season tickets and things like that. All of that is something special to be a part of.”

Added one former Lobo basketball strength coach who remains close with several of the players in the program:

One fan’s opinion

Here’s how one fan on Twitter summarized much of Saturday’s game:

Dutcher’s challenge

Like Brian Dutcher, there was another longtime assistant taking over for one of the best coaches in the Mountain West once rode the backs of some great seniors and won the Mountain West Tournament in his first season.

In fact, SDSU fans might remember the guy since his tourney title was against the Aztecs in 2014.

His name? Craig Neal, whose Lobos, led by seniors like Cameron Bairstow, Alex Kirk and Kendall Williams, won the 2013-14 MWC Tournament title and cut down nets in Noodles’ first year on the job.

Things seemed good for the program, as they do now for Dutcher and the Aztecs.

Dutcher’s challenge moving forward: Longevity. As hard as this season was, I think Noodles can attest the real challenge may start after this coming NCAA Tournament.

Senior moments

After the press conference on Saturday, I went to talk again with Lobos coach Paul Weir.

He couldn’t stop talking about how bad he felt for his three seniors — Joe Furstinger, Antino Jackson and Sam Logwood.

“I hate talking about the future,” Weir said. “It’s really not about that right now. It’s about honoring these young men, especially the seniors, and everything they gave. I don’t want to look at them from a standpoint of doing something for the future, although they are. It’s really about thanking them for everything they did. The work they put in, the commitment they gave to this thing. Whatever that leads to, then we’ll start with going forward. But for now, it’s really about these seniors who were amazing. I’m thankful to have had them, to have coached them. Hopefully we’ll have relationships for the rest of out lives.”

That was after he addressed a large media group during his postgame press conference and said this of his seniors:

“I was proud of these guys. And I don’t really have that emotion very often, not even just today, just the last six weeks or so they’ve made a lot of people believe. And I think in the process they even made themselves believe. And to do that in today’s day and age is really hard.”

Meanwhile, at halftime…

Here’s a glimpse of the halftime entertainment at the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday:

Foul mood

From the x’s and o’s stand point of Saturday’s game, one questionable coaching decision from Paul Weir I had to ask him about was when Anthony Mathis hit a pair of free throws with 52.8 seconds left in the game and the Lobos had just cut the lead to four points at 77-73.

The Lobos did not foul and SDSU ran 25 seconds off the clock before Trey Kell was fouled with 27 seconds left (he hit them both, putting the Aztecs up six at 79-73).

So, why not foul?

“We wanted to,” Weir said. “If it was (SDSU guard Jeremy) Hemsely, we were looking to foul — some certain guys. But if it got to the other guys we thought were going to make shots, we just didn’t (foul). …

“Hemsley was there. We were trying to let him catch it. He cycled out. Somebody else came back. Once it got into Watson, I just didn’t want to foul him.”

Kell the killer

OK, so maybe Weir told Dutcher he hopes UNM and SDSU do this again more often, but maybe he should look at this stat.

Trey Kell scored a carer-high 28 points in Saturday’s SDSU win, tying a program record in the MWC Tournament that two other Aztecs (Billy White in 2010 and Brandon Heath in 2005) achieved.

The team all three SDSU 28-point performances in the MWC Tournament have come against? The UNM Lobos.

They were watching from everywhere

Not everyone could be among the announced crowd of 8,456 in the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday.

For those who couldn’t be there, plenty were still very much watching.

Final stat sheet

Here’s a pic of the final stat sheet:

All-MWC Tournament team

• Trey Kell, SDSU (MVP)
• Devin Watson, SDSU
• Antino Jackson, UNM
• Joe Furstinger, UNM
• Jordan Caroline, Nevada

That happened to be my exact ballot, too (the same as the overall voting by the media for the all-tourney team).

If I had an all-snubbed team, or All-MWC Tournament 2nd team, these are the five I would say have a good cases to be made for it:

• Sam Logwood, UNM
• Troy Simons, UNM
• Malik Pope, SDSU
• Jalen McDaniels, SDSU
• Sam Merrill, Utah State

Plus/minus stats

Here are the plus/minus stats from Saturday’s game for UNM (what was the scoring margin while a player was on the court):

+11 Antino Jackson
+4 Vladimir Pinchuk
+4 Troy Simons
-1 Sam Logwood
-4 Makuach Maluach
-10 Joe Furstinger
-12 Dane Kuiper
-12 Anthony Mathis
-15 Chris McNeal

Meanwhile, at the Orleans…

The New Mexico State Aggies are going dancing again, beating Grand Canyon University 72-58 at the Orleans to again win the Western Athletic Conference Tournament championship.

How’s this for a couple stats? Chris Jans becomes the third first-year NMSU coach to make the NCAA Tournament, joining Lou Henson and Paul Weir.

And here’s another nugget from USA Today’s Steve Berkowitz:

Postgame press conference

Here’s the postgame press conference video of Paul Weir, Joe Furstinger and Antino Jackson that I posted on the Journal’s Facebook page. I was almost the only person to ask questions (it was a loss, after all and nobody seems to ask questions after losses).

They got next

So, about those two guys who were sitting out all season but practicing with the Lobos…

Grammer’s Guesses

The Guesses, and my daughter’s lucky coin, both thought the Lobos would keep it within four points.

That didn’t happen, so I finished 5-4-1 in the Mountain West Tournament and, added to the regular season, went 60-45-4 against the spread this season.

Once again, my daughter flipping a coin beat me. She was just 3-6-1 in the tournament, but went 64-41-4 on the season.

And I had a blast having her be a part of the season with me.

Until next time…

Until next time, Thomas & Mack Center, home of the 2018 Mountain West men’s and women’s tournaments.