Only two major goals, it seems, have eluded the UNM men’s basketball team thus far under coach Steve Alford: an NCAA Tournament berth and a victory in the Mountain West Conference tourney.
And yes, the two are closely related.
On Monday, in assessing the just-completed 2008-09 season and looking ahead at ’09-10, Alford said he’s thrilled with what the Lobos have achieved during his first two years: 46 victories, 14 of those on the road; a share of a regular-season MWC title; consistently solid defense; an excellent assist-to-turnover ratio; last but not least, a vastly improved team grade-point average.
“It was an outstanding year,” he said of the ’08-09 season (22-12 overall, 12-4 in MWC regular-season play), which ended with a loss at Notre Dame in the second round of the NIT. “We made improvements, and that’s what you want to do each year.
“… We went from a team that was predicted (to finish) fifth and won a share of a league championship, so it’s a good year anytime you’ve got a championship involved.”
He added he’s excited about the immediate future, despite the youth and inexperience that will greet him when the Lobos begin workouts for next season.
“I like the team that’s coming back,” he said. “…. I like the guys we’ve got coming in. The recruits have had really good years.”
But Alford also talked about brass rings not yet grasped, and about how to reach them in the coming years.
At a news conference, Alford was asked if he’d figured out a formula — other than capturing the Mountain West’s automatic bid by winning the league tourney — for getting the Lobos into the NCAA Tournament. After losing in the first round of the MWC tourney the past two years, UNM was passed over each time by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.
“I have no clue,” he said. “I sat here last year and said you had to win the league (regular-season) title or win the league tournament. We did one of those two things and that didn’t work, so I’m not sure I’ve got that formula.”
To win the MWC tournament, Alford said, the Lobos will have to learn to win at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nev. UNM is 0-4 in the Thomas & Mack, which has been the site of the league tourney seven of the past 10 years and again will be next season.
“You look at every other building (in the conference) other than maybe BYU, and we’ve played very good basketball and won games. It just so happens that the place that we don’t play very good basketball is the Thomas & Mack Center, and to get an automatic bid, we’re gonna have to learn how to play well there.”
Regarding an NCAA at-large bid, Alford said he felt the Lobos were one of at least a dozen teams that deserved one this year but were turned away. He’s a vocal advocate of expanding the NCAA Tournament field.
“There are a lot of different things that you can do (and) still have bubble teams, still have the things that TV likes to have, and all the talk,” he said.
“I don’t know what the exact number is; I just know there needs to be expansion.”
Alford, while defending the strength of UNM’s ’08-09 nonconference schedule, acknowledged the schedule needs to keep improving. That will happen, he said, but added it’s almost impossible from year to year to know exactly how strong a nonconference schedule will turn out to be.
“Ole Miss, a year ago, was a good home-and-home (series),” he said. “But this year, they fell into hard times. Those things you can’t predict.”
Alford said he would consider two-for-ones — two visits to a power-conference school in exchange for one game at the Pit — as a means of improving the schedule.
THE BIG QUESTION: There’s bad news and no news, Alford said, regarding his hopes to field a bigger, stronger team next season.
Without mentioning 6-foot-9 recruit Isaiah Rusher by name, Alford said UNM has heard nothing from the NCAA regarding Rusher’s eligibility issues.
“We don’t have a time line,” he said. “We’re just waiting … We obviously hope it’s sooner than later.”
Regarding Kem Nweke, a 6-10, 265-pound sophomore who sat out his redshirt freshman season after undergoing knee surgery, Alford said the prognosis is not good.
“When you’re that big and you have knee problems, sometimes the rehab isn’t gonna be good enough,” Alford said. “… There’s a possibility, just from a health (standpoint), that he won’t be available.”