The future is now.
And the New Mexico Lobos get to display it by taking a page out of the past
Tonight, the Lobos — without a senior in the lineup — face one of their oldest rivals — UTEP — in the opening round of the NIT.
The Lobos (21-12) are without senior point guard Dairese Gary, who tore the ACL in his right knee during UNM’s 87-76 loss to BYU in the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference on Saturday.
Without Gary, fans will get a future glimpse of how the Lobos will look next season — save the incoming recruits.
“That’s exactly right,” Alford told the Journal. “It’s nice that these guys still get a chance to play, but Dairese had such an incredible year for us. He’s done everything a player could do to lead us to wins, now he’s got to lead from the bench. It’s not easy for him, but I know our guys are going to be excited to play just for him.”
Gary started 130 consecutive games. Tonight will be the first game he has missed in his collegiate career.
He has been first-team all-Mountain West conference each of the past two seasons and is the league’s all-time leader in assists.
“Playing without Dairese will be tough no question,” says Lobo freshman guard Kendall Williams, who might start at the point tonight. “He’s been there all year for us scoring points and just being a leader on the court. He will be there with us though, and we definitely want to play well and send him out of the Pit again with a win.”
The Lobos and Miners (25-9) meet for the 141st time, with the Lobos holding a 75-65 lead. They last played on Jan. 6, 2009, when the Miners won 73-60 in Albuquerque. Alford says he will schedule UTEP again next season.
“We’ve both got players who played in that game last time,” Alford says. “So (the Miners) know how to play in the Pit, and how to win in the Pit.”
There are 32 teams in the NIT field, which is picks from the list of teams that were left out of the 68-team NCAA Tournament.
Like the NCAA Tournament, the NIT is split into four brackets.
The Lobos are a No. 4 seed while the Miners are a No. 5. The winner of tonight’s game will advance to the second round, sometime between March 18-21, and face the winner of tonight’s (8) Costal Carolina at (1) Alabama game.
The tournament uses home sites for the first three rounds before heading to New York’s Madison Square Garden for the semifinals and championship on March 29 and March 31, respectively.
While the Miners and Lobos were once heated rivals, they haven’t played in the same league since UNM left the Western Athletic Conference for the MWC after the 1998-99 season.
The Miners are now in Conference USA, where they came in second during the regular season behind Alabama-Birmingham with an 11-5 record.
Memphis upset UTEP 67-66 in Saturday’s Conference USA tournament title game in El Paso for the automatic bid into the NCAAs. UTEP had thrashed the Tigers 74-47 on the same floor earlier in the season.
UAB made the NCAA Tournament as an at-large pick.
“Anytime you get a chance to keep playing it’s good,” said UNM junior post Drew Gordon. “The NIT is where we are at, so we have a chance to continue playing and face a really good UTEP squad that just missed winning their league title.”
While the Miners could have trouble regrouping from that devastating home loss that kept them out of the Big Dance, coach Tim Floyd — the ex-Chicago Bulls coach and ex-Southern Cal coach during the O.J. Mayo scandal — said he is looking forward to the challenge tonight in the Pit against New Mexico.
“It’s a great program, one I feel like should’ve been given more consideration for being in the NCAA Tournament, given that they beat BYU twice this year,” Floyd said. “I thought they should’ve been in. I have a lot of respect for their fans. I’ve always felt like it was the most difficult environment I’ve ever coached in. They should be proud of their fan support. I have a lot of respect for their coach and players. I have watched them several times on TV and it will be a difficult challenge. I’m looking forward to working with our guys again.”
One of those guys who Lobo fans will remember is guard Randy Culpepper, a 6-foot senior spark plug and long-range shooter who led the team in scoring at 19.1 points a game this season. Senior guard Christian Polk averages 11.8 points a game for Tim Floyd’s Miners while senor forward Jeremy Williams averages 10.5 points and 5.5 rebounds.
Capsule – NIT, first round: UTEP at UNM, 7 p.m. Photo Credit – dean hanson/journal Cutline – Basketball fans line up outside the UNM ticket office Monday to buy tickets for tonight’s NIT match between New Mexico and Texas-El Paso. The schools will be playing for the 141st time.