The semifinals, that is, of the Mountain West Conference tournament.
For the New Mexico Lobos, it’s win, win, win — if you’re talking about the NCAA Tournament — and you’re in.
Maybe not so simple.
While the MWC tournament bracket has fallen perfectly for the Lobos (20-11, 8-8), let’s remember a couple of things:
■ UNM has one of the worst track records (6-10) in tournament history, ahead of only Air Force (2-11) and TCU (1-5).
■ Current coach Steve Alford has the worst record of any Lobo coach in MWC tournament history at 1-3. And the Lobos have been the higher seed in all four MWC tournament games under Alford.
But maybe this lower-seed deal can work to New Mexico’s advantage. UNM is a 2-point favorite against Colorado State (19-11, 9-7) in today’s quarterfinals at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“I think we can win it,” says UNM freshman guard Kendall Williams. “I just feel like there’s something destined for us to make a little run, make a little Vegas magic, a little March magic. And I think where the team’s at, mentally and physically, I think we can do it.”
The Lobos also have something else going for them: Experience.
Yep. Despite the year-long campaign by Alford and UNM media relations department describing the “young and inexperienced Lobos,” nothing could be further from the truth, comparatively speaking, when it comes to starting lineups.
The Lobos are one of only two teams in the field with four or more starting upperclassmen. BYU is the other, but is also without starting center and leading rebounder Brandon Davies, who was tossed from the team.
Adding to the Lobos’ experience is that three of those upperclassmen — senior and two-time first-team All-MWC pick Dairese Gary, and juniors Phillip McDonald and A.J. Hardeman — were starters all of last season when the Lobos went to the NCAA Tournament. The fourth of this year’s upperclassmen starters is second-team All-MWC junior and league Newcomer of the Year Drew Gordon, and the final starter is Williams, the MWC Freshman of the Year.
No other MWC team has more than three starting upperclassmen.
Something else in the Lobos’ favor is that they enter the event on a three-game winning streak — one of those an 82-64 rout of top-seeded Brigham Young last week in Provo, Utah.
If UNM beats the Rams, it likely will face the Cougars again in Friday’s semifinals. But first comes Colorado State, a team with which the Lobos split two games this season.
UNM controlled the Jan. 12 meeting in the Pit, leading by double digits before a late Rams run cut it to a point with a minute left. New Mexico won 68-61.
CSU grabbed an 18-point lead in the rematch in Fort Collins, Colo., before the Lobos roared back to cut it to three points. The Rams won 68-62.
“The best way to find out who the better team is to play them at their place, play them at our place and play them on a neutral floor,” says CSU coach Tim Miles. “That’s what we get to see and what we get to find out with this game.”
While the floor itself is neutral, the stands won’t be. The Lobos are expected to have upward of 5,000 fans. CSU typically has fewer than 1,000.
But the Lobos have had huge crowds here every year here — and all three times the event was held in Denver — but without a great deal of success.
Only in three of the MWC tournament’s 11 years have the Lobos advanced past their first game.
Coaches Fran Fraschilla, Ritchie McKay and Alford have each done so once.
But while Fraschilla got the Lobos to the title game in 2001, losing in the final seconds to BYU, and Danny Granger, err … McKay led the Lobos to the championship in 2005, Alford has but one win in his three years in the event.
That win came last year, when the top-seeded Lobos struggled to a 75-69 win against ninth-seeded Air Force — a team that was a combined 1-31 in its past two years of MWC play. The Lobos then hit the eject button in the semifinal against fourth-seeded San Diego State.
So what will it come down to today?
“Who wants it more,” Gary says. “Who is more focused, and who does the little things.”
Lobo men’s coaches in MWC tournament
Fran Fraschilla 2-3 Ritchie McKay *3-4 Steve Alford 1-3 * Won title in 2005 Alford/Lobos in MWC tournament
(Seeds in parentheses) 2008: (6) Utah 82, (3) UNM 80, OT 2009: (6) Wyoming 75, (3) UNM 67 2010: (1) UNM 75, (9) Air Force 69; (4) San Diego St. 72, (1) UNM 69
Capsule – Fran Fraschilla 2-3
Photo Credit – creditline