ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The news was as good as could be expected.
In fact, it was great.
On Sunday, the University of New Mexico men’s basketball was awarded a No. 3 seed for the NCAA Tournament, matching the best in school history.
The eighth-ranked Lobos (29-4) were sent to the East Regional, but will open play in San Jose, Calif., on Thursday against 14th-seeded Montana (22-9). If they beat the Big Sky champion Grizzlies, they will face the winner of the Washington-Marquette game in Saturday’s second round.
to the limited number each school is allotted, Lobo Club contributors
and UNM students have priority. UNM has received requests for the full
If there are cancellations, tickets will be sold on
a first-come, first-serve basis at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday at the UNM
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No. 3 New Mexico vs. No. 14 Montana, San Jose, Calif.,
TV: CBS Time: approx. 8 p.m.
Two wins, and it’s on to the Sweet 16 in Syracuse, N.Y.
“I think with the season we’ve had, you want the best possible news, and I think this is the best news we could have gotten,” said UNM coach Steve Alford, who celebrated with his team and an estimated 5,000 fans at the Pit in front of the CBS cameras on Sunday.
“You want respect, and I think our league got respect. It speaks volumes of what our league has done the past couple of years.”
Alford said he didn’t know much about the Grizzlies, except for being familiar with senior guard Anthony Johnson. The 6-foot-3 senior hit 13-of-22 shots and 14-of-14 free throws for 42 points in Montana’s 66-65 comeback win against Weber State in the finals of last week’s Big Sky tournament. Johnson averages 19.6 points a game.
The Grizzlies trailed the Weber State 40-20 at halftime before storming back to win it on a jumper by Johnson with 11 seconds remaining.
“We know he’s extremely talented,” Alford said. “We’ll be at war (Sunday night), this is a fun night because coaches get to pull all-nighters. We gather as much tape as we can online and really get to work trying to put together a scouting report.”
But before the buckling down started Sunday evening, it was time to celebrate Sunday afternoon. And the Lobos had good reason.
The seed matches the one New Mexico received in 1997, it’s highest ever. That year, the Lobos beat Old Dominion 59-55 in the first round of the tournament before losing to Louisville 64-63 in the second round.
It is also the highest seed ever for the Mountain West Conference, eclipsing the No. 5 that Utah pulled in last year.
Sunday also marked the first time the MWC has ever received four bids for the event.
“That really says something about the strength of our league,” said athletic director Paul Krebs. “Our top four are really good teams and it’s great to get that kind of recognition.
“We’re thrilled to get a 3 seed. It shows that if you get the job done at New Mexico, you can get noticed around the country. There are a lot of things that make this a special program, and today – with the seed and this fan turnout – we got to see some of that.”
Joining UNM in the field are MWC members:
San Diego State (25-8), which beat the Lobos 72-69 in Friday’s semifinals of the MWC tournament in Las Vegas before winning the event, is an 11th seed in the Midwest Regional. The Aztecs play sixth-seeded Tennessee in the first round on Thursday at Providence, R.I.
UNLV (25-8), which lost to San Diego State in the finals, is a No. 8 seed and was also sent to the Midwest Regional for a first-round game against No. 9 Northern Iowa. That game is Thursday in Oklahoma City.
BYU (29-5), which lost to UNLV in the MWC semifinals, is a seventh seed in the West Regional and plays No. 10 Florida on Thursday in Oklahoma City. If the Cougars win that one, they will face either second-seeded Kansas State or 15th seeded North Texas in the second round. If BYU gets to the Sweet 16, they will have the benefit of playing the regionals at Salt Lake City – just 40 miles from their campus in Provo, Utah.
The elusive Sweet 16 seems far more attainable for the Lobos than any other team in the Mountain West.
If it happens, it will be a welcome relief for UNM’s passionate fan base.
“I don’t think UNM has ever gotten past the Sweet 16,” said senior Roman Martinez. “We’re trying to shoot for the stars and go as far was we can … I’m just enjoying it right now because this is a great honor, a great scene (in the Pit). I mean, it’s unbelievable.”
Martinez is correct. The Lobos have never been past the Sweet 16.
But contrary to popular myth, they have been among the final 16 teams in the tournament on two occasions.
The Lobos, however, haven’t exactly been a success story in the tournament. This is their 12th appearance, and they have never won back-to-back game and have never made it to the Sweet 16 since the field was expanded to 64 (now 65) teams.
In their first trip to the Big Dance (1968), the Lobos were awarded a bye in the first round of the 23-team field and advanced straight to the regional finals in the Pit. But UNM was upset by Santa Clara and then lost to New Mexico State in the regional consolation game.
In 1974, UNM beat Idaho State 73-65 in Pocatello, Idaho to get to the regional semifinals. But they lost to San Francisco 64-61 in Tucson. UNM then beat Dayton in the regional consolation game. The tournament no longer plays consolation games.
The Lobos didn’t win another game in the tournament until 1996. That was the first of four straight years they won a first-round game, but lost in the second round each time.
UNM didn’t get back to the event until 2005, when Danny Granger led the team to the MWC tournament title, snatching an automatic berth. But the Lobos fell behind by 24 points in the first half against Villanova, before losing 55-47.
New Mexico is 6-12 all-time in the tournament, counting the two consolation games.
“This year, we’re looking to change things,” said UNM junior Darington Hobson. “It’s been a long time coming, but if we take care of business we expect to make a run.”
NOTES: The Lobos are 8-3 this season against other teams in the field; SDSU (1-2), UNLV (1-1), BYU (2-0), New Mexico State (2-0), Texas A&M (1-0) and Cal (1-0).
…This is the first time since 1999 the Lobos and Aggies both made the tournament in the same year.
…It was pure bedlam in the Pit when UNM’s seed was announced on Sunday. But the second biggest cheer of the day went to NMSU when it was announced in the field, followed by announcements of San Diego State and UNLV.
Not on your life. The Cougars drew the biggest round of boos, followed by Texas and – for some reason – Kansas.