UNM Looks for First Title Under Alford
LAS VEGAS, Nev. – It’s no longer win it and you’re in it for the New Mexico men’s basketball team.
Now it’s simply a matter of, can you finally win it?
The Lobos look to be locked into next week’s NCAA Tournament as the 13th annual Mountain West Conference men’s basketball tournament begins here today at the Thomas & Mack Center.
But with the pressure off, can the Lobos do something they have never done under coach Steve Alford? Like win this tournament?
Or at least get to the championship game?
New Mexico (24-6, 10-4) will start the process tonight when it plays Air Force (13-15, 3-11) in the quarterfinals.
The Lobos have won one regular-season title outright under Alford and have shared two during his five years as coach. But when it comes time to put the cards on the table in the MWC tourney, the Lobos have busted.
“You’ve got to win three (games) in three (days); I don’t know if there’s any secret,” Alford said. “Wyoming beat us one year; there have been a lot of tight games. Last year, our best player (Dairese Gary) blows his knee out (early in second half of semifinal loss to BYU). … Wyoming’s the only time I didn’t think we played well. … We were fatigued (in 2010) against San Diego State.”
It’s not like the Lobos have been big underdogs. In fact, UNM has been the higher seed in all but one of the six games it has played under Alford and will be so again for least two games this time – provided it gets past an Air Force team it crushed by a combined 69 points in two meetings this season.
But being a big favorite has not always translated into victory.
Counting tonight’s game, Alford’s Lobo teams will have gone a combined 12-2 during the regular season against teams they faced in the MWC tournament. But they have yet to advance past the semifinals.
⋄ 2008: The third-seeded Lobos beat Utah twice during the regular season, but lost 82-80 to the sixth-seeded Utes in overtime in the quarterfinals.
♦ 2009: Third-seeded UNM beat Wyoming in both regular-season games, but lost to the sixth-seeded Cowboys 75-67 in the quarterfinals.
♦ 2010: The regular-season champion Lobos entered as the top seed with a 28-3 record and played ninth-seeded Air Force in the quarterfinals. The Falcons went 1-15 in MWC play and beat Wyoming in the play-in game just to get to the quarterfinals. The Lobos eked out a 75-69 win against AFA, then lost 72-69 to fourth-seeded San Diego State in the semifinals.
♦ 2011: The fifth-seeded Lobos went 1-1 against fourth-seeded Colorado State during the season, and beat the Rams 67-61 in the quarterfinals. The Lobos then lost 87-76 in the semifinals to BYU – a team they beat twice in the regular season – as Jimmer Fredette scored a tournament-record 52 points.
One of the tasks Alford and the second-seeded Lobos might have this week is getting refocused after their net-cutting celebration of the regular-season co-championship after beating Boise State. Alford says he’s not concerned.
“No, this team hasn’t been respected all year long,” Alford says. “It’s always been something: ‘We didn’t win by enough points; we beat the teams we’re supposed to beat.’ To me, I still don’t know what that means. ‘We haven’t won enough games; we were picked to win it; we start 1-2 so the sky’s gonna fall.’ But all they’ve done is win 10 games away from home.”
Starting Lobo sophomore guard Kendall Williams says: “We celebrated, now we need to refocus. I think it’s pretty easy. I still think we’re under-appreciated nationally, even in our own league. These games right here give us a real good chance to prove ourselves, prove our worth.”
The Lobos were tabbed the overwhelming favorites in the preseason poll to win the league. They have been favored by the Las Vegas point spread in all but one game (at UNLV) this season.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal