ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — What’s it been, a month since the Lobos last played?
Sure seems that way after an around-the-clock deluge of scintillating college basketball games during the past week.
But while the entire college basketball world is fixated on the madness that is the NCAA Tournament, and while local women’s hoop fans had the NCAA Women’s Tournament to grab their attention in the Pit, let’s not forget the New Mexico men’s basketball is still playing.
And it finally continues its season tonight in Alabama in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.
“I don’t think it’s been a distraction,” UNM freshman guard Kendall Williams says of the NCAA Tournament. “If anything, I think it’s more motivation to watch these teams compete at the highest level. The NIT’s no slouch. We’re going to return all of our players, and hopefully get a few wins this year before getting ready for next year. And that’s the goal next year, getting to the NCAAs. But right now we just want to beat Alabama.”
The Lobos (22-12), who had to practice at Johnson Gym last week, get that chance tonight — and on national TV.
At least for a couple hours, ESPN will put the national love affair with Jimmer Fredette on hold, and air the Lobos’ game with the Crimson Tide (22-11) .
“Being on ESPN2, and now the Mothership (ESPN) two weeks in a row, is huge,” said UNM coach Steve Alford. “The NCAA Tournament is down to Sweet 16, the NIT will have fewer than 16 teams left by (today). The other two tournaments (the CollegeInsider.com tournament and the College Basketball Invitational) are down to inside eight teams, so we’re one of only 40-some teams still playing, and that means something.”
For the record, it hasn’t been a month since UNM played. The Lobos beat UTEP 69-57 in the Pit last Tuesday in the NIT’s opening round.
If the Lobos win tonight, they play again on Wednesday against the winner of tonight’s Missouri State-Miami (Fla.) game. UNM will be on the road either way.
If the Lobos, who are a No. 4 seed, win a third game in the event, they head to New York next week for the semifinals.
But, like the Lobos’ last game, the Big Apple is a long way off. And those hopes will die tonight if they can’t find ways to score against a rugged Tide defense.
Alabama is seventh-best in the country in points allowed (58.8), and is fourth in both field goal percentage (38.2) and two-point percentage (41.1) .
Alabama — one of four No. 1 seeds in the event — isn’t overly big, just very strong and athletic. The Tide went 12-4 and won the Southeast Conference Western Division, but were left on the NCAA Tournament bubble after a 72-58 loss to Kentucky in the semifinals of the SEC tournament.
The Tide rolled Coastal Carolina 68-44 at home last week in the first round of the NIT to run its record to 17-0 this season at Coleman Coliseum. There were 5,116 fans on hand.
“I thought the crowd was outstanding,” said Bama second-year coach Anthony Grant. “It was fun to see all the kids on the sidelines. I thought the atmosphere that was created was very, very good. The students are back in town (after spring break), so hopefully we’ll have a good crowd.”
The arena seats 15,316.
The Tide is led by JaMychal Green, a 6-foot-8 junior forward (16.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.1 blocks a game), 6-6 sophomore forward Tony Mitchell (15.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and 6-1 freshman guard Trevor Releford 10.4 ppg, 3.4 assists a game).
For Grant, he knows all about the NCAA Tournament distractions — especially for his bunch that came within an eyelash of making the field.
“We’re just trying to keep it as consistent as we can, keep a routine and have them understand what were doing,” Grant said. “I think the thing that’s different is we’re back to being out of league. Once you’re in conference play, you have those 16 games where your guys are pretty familiar with who you’re playing. But here, you’ve got a new opponent.”
NOTES: UNM and Alabama have never met in men’s hoops. Alford is 0-1 in his career against Alabama, having lost to the Tide when he was at Iowa.
Alford is also 0-1 against Grant, when the latter was coach at VCU — which beat UNM in the Cancun Challenge in the 2008-09 season.
Capsule – Men’s NIT, second round: UNM at Alabama, 7 p.m.