It wasn’t all that long ago that the Lobos went in one season from a 27-win, NCAA Tournament team to a squad sitting in late February in 9th place in the Mountain West standings.
That 2015 Lobos squad went 0-for-8 in February, managed an overtime win on senior night to end the season as the No. 8 seed in the Mountain West Tournament, before losing a play-in game to Air Force to finish with a 15-16 record overall and 7-11 in league play.
Considering the starting points for those two teams and the two-year roster turnover Paul Weir’s program has had since taking over in April 2017, it isn’t exactly an apples to apples comparing that year’s team to this one. But there are some obvious similarities. Both lost its point guard for the season (then Cullen Neal, this season JaQuan Lyle), both have a fourth-year senior as their leading scorer trying to close out his career on a high note (then Hugh Greenwood, now Anthony Mathis), and both teams are sitting alone in 9th late in the season.
But one big difference now, though, is the Lobos of this season seem to still have a good chance at climbing out of the mess. At least some.
UNM has four games remaining that, statistically speaking, they will likely be favored to win. And if they do, it appears they would climb to the No. 6 seed in the MW Tournament.
And while the home stretch of four arguably winnable games for the Lobos (11-15 overall, 5-9 MWC) starts with Tuesday night’s road game at last-place San Jose State (3-23, 0-14 MWC), don’t tell Weir there’s a chance his team overlooks the Spartans.
“I would think that based on how our record is or how our season has gone, I would hope that doesn’t even come into play,” Weir said. “We have to get a win. Whether we’re playing Boise or Nevada (or SJSU), we’re going to attack it with the same urgency and commitment to becoming better and continuing to grow as a team.”
The Lobos can’t win their final four if they don’t win the first of the stretch. And then convincing fans, or themselves, they can pull off more will be a feat unto itself as the Lobos haven’t won more than two in a row vs. Division I teams yet this season.
The Spartans, despite their record, present challenges the Lobos say they’re well aware of heading to the Bay area. Primarily, packing in a zone defense that will practically beg the Lobos to keep firing up 3s.
SJSU allows opponents in league play to hit 12.2 3-pointers per game. The next closest team allows just a shade over 9 a game.
UNM hit 14 3s against the Spartans in the Feb. 13 win in the Pit, but haven’t hit double digit 3s in any other game since Jan. 15.
Weir hopes his team realizes that while the 3s will be what’s most noticeable, good or bad, it’s all the other aspects of the game the Lobos must focus on.
“If you’re shooting well, but you don’t necessarily play well, you can still come away maybe a win against them this season,” Weir said. “… It can be a little deceptive. We just have to play well. If the shots are going down, and that reflects in the score, that’s great. But if they don’t we have to make sure we’re still controlling all those other things the best that we can because they really just pack it in and force you to shoot from the perimeter. We have to make sure that outside of that, we’re controlling every other aspect of the game as best we can.”
CLOSING IN: The Spartans are trying to avoid being just the fifth team in Mountain West history to finish a season without a league win and Weir warned his team they will face a desperate team.
“I told the guys, they’re not looking at anything other than 5-9,” Weir said, referring to the Lobos’ record. “They’re looking at the numbers, too, and thinking maybe this is one they can get.”
The four teams in MWC history that went winless:
• 1999-2000: San Diego State (0-14)
• 2007-08: Colorado State (0-16)
• 2008-09: Air Force (0-16)
• 2014-15: San Jose State (0-18).
Only the Spartans of four seasons ago have gone winless since the league went to an 18-game schedule. Both 2008 CSU and 2009 AFA went on to win their play-in round games in the MWC Tournament, though that was before the league expanded to 11 games.