The harsh, somewhat perplexing reality of the Mountain West basketball season was on display in the C terminal of Denver International Airport on Saturday night.
Licking their wounds at gate 31 (it was changed right before boarding to gate 33) for Southwest Airlines flight 5380 home to San Diego were the San Diego State Aztecs. The team that knocked off Nevada twice at the end of last season — once in the regular-season finale and again in the conference tournament semifinals before beating the UNM Lobos in the title game to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament — was somber on Saturday night after a head-scratching loss earlier in the day at Air Force, a little more than an hour south on Interstate 25.
Next door at terminal C’s gate 29 waiting on Southwest flight 5372 back to Albuquerque were the UNM Lobos, a squad seemingly trying to figure itself out after just last week beating then undefeated Nevada by 27 points at home, only to lose its next two games including earlier on Saturday an hour north on Interstate 25 at Colorado State.
Both teams’ second-year coaches — Brian Dutcher for the Aztecs and Paul Weir for the Lobos — commiserated for a while as their players sat quietly waiting for their commercial flights home while snow began falling on the dark tarmac outside and unrest from each team’s fan base was starting to move past the whisper stages back home.
The two teams picked Nos. 2 and 3 in the preseason poll play each other Tuesday night in Viejas Arena in the 9 p.m. time slot (8 p.m. local in San Diego) in a game that was specially selected in the preseason by CBS Sports Network to feature in their nationally televised time slot.
Instead of it being the matchup that may have been expected, it will be a game between two middle-of-the-pack programs — San Diego State (9-7 overall, 1-2 in MWC) and New Mexico (8-8, 2-2).
The teams are still considered perennial powers in the 20-year-old Mountain West, but both had seen better days before late runs last season gave both programs reason for optimism about the future with their new coaches — UNM won seven in a row before losing to SDSU in the conference title game, SDSU won nine straight before a first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament.
Now, forget the long term. Both teams would like some stability this season after emotional highs and lows of the past two weeks.
SDSU’s 1-2 league record includes, in order, a 24-point loss, a 30-point win and 14-point loss to previously winless Air Force that included a 14-point first-half showing.
UNM’s league showing this season included a road win over those same Air Force Falcons followed by a nationally recognized 27-point home blowout of previously undefeated Nevada in two of the best defensive efforts of the season. Air Force was held to 0.84 points per possession and the Wolf Pack to 0.81 ppp against the new zone defense implemented by Weir.
Those were followed by two losses to UNLV and Colorado State in two of the worst defensive showings of the season. UNLV scored 1.21 points per possession and the Rams on Saturday scored 1.23 points per possession while exposing Weir’s new zone defense.
Weir was asked Saturday if there was anything going on in his locker room that would indicate a team with shaken confidence or anything else that might explain the sharp drop off after the Nevada win.
“Not that I’m aware of,” Weir said.
“Those were two very guard-heavy teams,” said Weir. “We’re not. And it’s getting exposed.”
YOU LOOK FAMILIAR: According to the always rational and sane discourse on social media, the Lobos are in a state of turmoil after Saturday’s loss. How else can you explain beating Nevada on a Saturday then losing two in a row over the next seven days to fall to 2-2 in league play?
Well, history shows that in 20 years of MWC play, this is what the Lobos did most seasons — in good seasons and bad. The Lobos through four conference games have started 2-2 11 times, 3-1 four times, 1-3 four times and 4-0 once.
YOU LOOK FAMILIAR, PART II: Are the CSU Rams this season’s version of last season’s UNM Lobos?
Take the following similarities into consideration: Both have new, young head coaches (Weir and CSU’s Niko Medved even share the same agent) who struggled instilling his brand of basketball in a sub-.500 nonconference slate and both started quietly clicking in January and started 2-2 in league play.
And one more note on CSU, the Rams are the only league team that is 4-0 against the Las Vegas point spread in conference play, having beaten those point spreads by, in order, 7.5 points, 5 points, 18.5 points and 16 points.
Tuesday: UNM at SDSU, 9 p.m., CBS Sports Network, 770 AM/94.5 FM