Three (or four) games in Las Vegas, Nevada. That’s all that stands between the UNM Lobos – long since removed from any shot at an at large berth to the NCAA Tournament – and playing in the program’s first postseason since a one-and-done trip to the 2014 NCAA Tournament in St. Louis.
The longest postseason drought since Bob King took over the program in the early 1960s will be over, the team believes, with a strong run in the in the Mountain West tournament March 4-7.
“I’m trying to get to the (NCAA) Tournament,” Lobos junior forward Vance Jackson said after last Saturday’s blowout win over Wyoming. “I ain’t going to lie to you. I feel like everybody wants to get to the tournament – the whole fan base, New Mexico, everybody wants to get to the tournament. We’re all hungry for it.”
Added sophomore guard Vante Hendrix on Thursday in an interview with the Journal, “We’ll be ready for Vegas. We just have to stay focused and get these next wins at home.”
With the historic season the No. 4 San Diego State Aztecs are enjoying (25-0, 14-0 MWC and already clinched the regular-season title), being “ready for Vegas” this year means positioning yourself on the right side of the MWC tournament bracket with the hopes of avoiding the Aztecs for as long as possible, maybe even if it means dropping to the Nos. 6 and 7 seeds and having to play an extra game in the “play-in” round of the 11-team tournament.
That’s the position the Lobos (17-9, 6-7) and their Saturday afternoon opponent in the Pit, UNLV (12-14, 9-9), find themselves in with just two weeks of the regular season remaining before the unusual, week-early conference tournament this season.
The format of the MWC tournament gives “byes” into the quarterfinal round for the top five seeds in the conference standings with teams seeded 6 through 11 having to first square off in the opening round, or “play-in” round as most refer to it.
The top half of the bracket will have No. 1 San Diego State awaiting the winner of the 8/9 play-in game and the other quarterfinal is the Nos. 4 and 5 seeded teams playing each other with a shot, presumably, at SDSU in the semifinals.
The other half of the bracket is where seeds 2, 3, 6, 7, 10 and 11 play.
Through Wednesday’s games, seeds 2 through 7 were separated by 2.5 games, meaning there is the potential for plenty of movement in the final two weeks.
UNLV’s 7-6 league record currently has the Rebels as the No. 6 seed, which would lead to a play-in game against Wyoming before advancing to a quarterfinal game against the No. 3 seed.
UNM’s 6-7 league record would give the Lobos the No. 7 seed with an expected play-in game against either San Jose State or Air Force before advancing to a quarterfinal game against the No. 2 seed.
TICKETS: UNM on Friday said both Saturday’s UNLV and Tuesday’s Nevada games had similar ticket sale numbers – roughly 10,400 tickets already sold or accounted for with each game.
In the case of Tuesday’s Nevada game, which features the return to the Pit of former coaches Steve Alford and Craig Neal, all 40 suites are sold out, though UNM has not said how many of those suites are sold to the capacity (they do offer partial suite sales).
Per NCAA.com on Friday, UNM ranked 33rd in the nation (353 Division I teams) and second in the Mountain West in average home attendance at 10,855 per game.
San Diego State’s 11,553 average tops the league and sits at No. 30 nationally.
BEAR IT: There will be a teddy bear toss promotion at halftime. Fans who bring a new teddy bear to the game can toss them on the court at halftime and they will be used by Albuquerque Police and Fire departments to hand out to children facing traumatic situations.