ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A couple of seasons ago, UNM faced similar circumstances
LAS VEGAS, Nev. – Stop me if you’ve already heard this one.
The New Mexico men’s basketball team blazes through its nonconference season, starts getting some national publicity and then – wham! Mountain West Conference play begins.
The Lobos then get whipped by both San Diego State and UNLV, including one of those losses at home, and suddenly they look like a middle-of-the-road MWC team.
CSU at UNM, 8 p.m.
TV: CBS Sports Net
Radio: KKOB -AM (770)
That was the scenario in 2009-10, when the Lobos won 14 of their 15 nonconference games before opening 0-2 in the MWC with losses at San Diego State and at home against UNLV.
But that wasn’t exactly a lost season, was it?
UNM regrouped, won its final 14 league games – including avenging the losses to both the Aztecs and Rebels – and raced into the NCAA Tournament with a No. 3 seed. The 30-5 campaign ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament with the program claiming its most wins in history.
Flash forward to 2011-12. The Lobos won 14 of 16 nonconference games and even opened MWC play with a road win at Wyoming for their 13th straight victory. Then along comes those mean old San Diego State Aztecs and UNLV Rebels again. And guess what? Another pair of back-to-back losses in which UNM was clearly outplayed, sending the Lobos once again into the league’s lower echelon early in the chase.
Now the question is, can UNM duplicate its down-the-stretch success of two years ago?
“We took (Sunday) off and get back to work (today),” said UNM coach Steve Alford. “We’ve got two huge games this week with Colorado State and TCU, and we’ve got to get those. Then we take another day off and we’ve got to get Air Force and Boise (State). It’s a pretty simple formula, it takes a lot of work to do that, but we’ve got to take it one game at a time.”
SDSU dominated the second half on Wednesday in the Pit and led by 13 points late before beating UNM 75-70. UNLV took control late in the first half Saturday, raced to a 22-point lead and posted an 80-63 rout of the Lobos (15-4, 1-2).
But the bottom line is, while the Lobos look to be – at best – the third best team in the MWC right now, it’s still very early. With 11 games remaining, there is more than a enough time to make a run at the top spot. But there probably can’t be any slip-ups to the league’s other teams. Both 14th-ranked UNLV (18-3, 2-1) and 16th-ranked San Diego State (17-2, 3-0) don’t look like they will lose many games the rest of the way. And with the reduced MWC season (14 games instead of 16), Alford has said that the Lobos can’t afford a slow start as in 2009-10.
“It’s just too tough to play catch-up in a 14-game season,” he said.
Sophomore guard Kendall Williams, who along with sophomore shooting guard Tony Snell scored 15 points for UNM on Saturday, said the Lobos learned from the recent losses.
“We learned there’s two halves to each game, and we can’t get too down or too high each half,” Williams said. “We just have to stick together, because we’re a confident group.”
Williams said the Lobos can “definitely” match up with both the Rebels and Aztecs in the February rematches.
Senior post A.J. Hardeman had one of his best games as a Lobo on Saturday, and was one of the only players who looked ready for the physical challenge that the athletic Rebels presented. Hardeman had 10 points and four rebounds, and was constantly battling for loose balls and trying to head-off Rebels drives to the basket.
Hardeman said the difference in the game was “toughness, we have to mentally focus. We didn’t focus enough.
“… It was disappointing,” Hardeman said of UNM squandering both opportunities against ranked teams. “They both out-toughed us.”
Alford said “I thought that was A.J.’s best performance of the season, and if we can get that kind of stuff out of him it’s really going to help us.”
Just like the entire Lobo team, however, Hardeman couldn’t get back fast enough to stop the Rebels’ potent transition game. UNLV scored 32 points off 21 New Mexico turnovers and outscored the Lobos by a mind-boggling 26-0 on fast-break points.
“It was get out and go,” said UNLV forward Mike Moser, who had 14 points and 10 boards and is the top early-season candidate for player of the year honors. “I don’t think they were ready for us to run like that.
— This article appeared on page B1 of the Albuquerque Journal