PORTLAND, Ore. — It could have been in 1978 against Cal-State Fullerton.
Maybe it was 1968 against Santa Clara or 1974 against San Francisco.
Toss in NCAA Tournament games in 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2010 — they all fit in the same hat as well.
But there’s no denying that today, right here in Portland’s Rose Garden, the New Mexico men’s basketball is playing one of the biggest games in school history.
Maybe the biggest.
That could depend on the result of today’s third-round matchup between UNM (28-6) and Louisville (27-9) for a trip to the Sweet 16.
“It would be a huge accomplishment,” Lobo sophomore Demetrius Walker says of winning back-to-back NCAA Tournament games for the first time in school history. “It’s all we’ve been thinking about. And if we go back to
Phoenix, you know we’re going to have Lobo Nation there — so anything could happen in that Sweet 16 game.”
Phoenix is where the winner of tonight’s game heads for next week’s West Regional semifinals.
While New Mexico has played in regional semis before (1968, 1974), that was long before the tournament expanded to 64 and now 68 teams — and before it was ever dubbed the Sweet 16.
The Lobos have been on this doorstep before. There was the 1978 team that only needed to beat unheralded Cal State- Fullerton to get to the regional semis — held in Albuquerque — but lost 90-85.
UNM also lost in the second round of the tournament in 1996 (Georgetown), 1997 (Louisville), 1998 (Syracuse), 1999 (Connecticut) and 2010 (Washington).
Interestingly, the 1997 game against Louisville was the closest the Lobos ever game to getting that second-round win. New Mexico missed a shot in the final seconds and lost 64-63.
Now it’s again Louisville, albeit a generation later, that is the only thing standing between the Lobos and that incredible dream.
“(Louisville) is a serious name,” says UNM senior Phillip McDonald. “Just to get to play a team from the Big East and a big-time power conference is good for us. We want to get there. Because Phoenix will be slash-Albuquerque (because of the fans).”
Two years ago, the Lobos were a No. 3 seed in the tournament and beat 14th-seeded Montana 62-57 before getting bombed 82-64 by 11th-seeded Washington.
McDonald was a starter on that team but comes off the bench now. His says this year’s 21st-ranked Lobos are better than the 2010 team.
“We’re a lot more deep than two years ago, and we’re not exhausted like two years ago,” he says. “This year we have good players off the bench. The bench players and starters are playing good.”
The Lobos, the West’s No. 5 seed, have won 13 of their last 15 and have yet to lose in March. They swept through three games last week in Las Vegas, Nev., to win the Mountain West Conference tournament.
Louisville has won five straight — four of those to win the Big East tournament last week.
The 17th-ranked Cardinals, the No. 4 seed in the West, finished 10-8 and in seventh place in the 16-team Big East.
Coach Rick Pitino says the challenges of playing in one of the nation’s largest and most elite leagues has them prepared for a tournament run.
“I think it helps you as a coach to watch so many different styles and how to go against it,” said Pitino, whose team beat Davidson 69-62 on Thursday. “We see a lot of 1-3-1 (zone defenses) … You see a lot of full-court pressure.
You see teams like South Florida, which will slow it down. You see a Georgetown (with a) Princeton style. Then you see, of course, the smash-mouth teams like Pittsburgh and West Virginia.”
Today, the Cards will see an energized Lobo bunch that has numerous talented guards, but will try to work it inside to senior post Drew Gordon. But Gordon could have his hands full down low with 6-foot-11 shot-blocker Gorgui Dieng — provided the latter stays out of foul trouble. He didn’t against Davidson and played just 19 minutes.
“They do a lot of pressing, a lot of zoning,” UNM coach Steve Alford said of Louisville. “We do no pressing, no zoning, so you’ve got a contrast of styles … so foul trouble can become an issue. It can be something or importance.”
So, too, will be plain-old grit. And nerves.
And the Lobos say they are ready to go where no UNM team has ever been.
“We have the mindset, ‘why not us?’ “ says Lobo freshman point guard Hugh Greenwood. “You’ve seen VCU and Butler do it the last couple of years; small teams coming in and doing their thing in the tournament. To take the Lobos to the Sweet 16 for the first time would be a huge accomplishment.”