ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — We’ve been down this road before.
Well, sort of.
The 15th-ranked New Mexico Lobos on Sunday learned they will be a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, matching the highest seed the program has ever received. UNM boasts a 29-5 record and plays No. 14 Harvard at 7:50 p.m. Thursday in Salt Lake City and fans across Lobo Nation are already talking Sweet Sixteen possibilities.
The Lobos, however, are trying their best to keep confidence high while not looking beyond the task at hand.
“Yeah, we want to do that,” Alford said of advancing to the round of 16 for the first time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams and the term Sweet Sixteen first became fashionable.
“But we don’t have our mind set on the Sweet Sixteen. We have our mind set on trying to advance in this tournament. If we get bounced in Game 1 or Game 4, this season was a huge success.”
That’s also how Alford views his 2010 team despite its earlier than anticipated exit from the Big Dance.
That Lobo team led by the likes of Dairese Gary, Roman Martinez and Darington Hobson, also boasted a No. 3 NCAA Tournament seed after a Mountain West championship season. (This year’s team added a league tournament title on Saturday that the 2010 squad did not.) That team carried a 29-4 record and a No. 8 ranking into the NCAA Tournament.
But, like so many past tournament runs, that season ended in the round of 32. The Lobos, thanks to a tired team, hit a wall when they faced an extremely fast and athletic Pac 10 team in the Washington Huskies.
This year, the Lobos once again have a potential third-round matchup with an athletic Pac 12 foe in No. 5 Arizona. The Wildcats spent most of this season in the top 10 of the AP poll until recent struggles dropped them.
But comparing the two teams beyond the similar seeds and rankings, says Martinez and Gary, is hard to do.
“Both of us play gritty and tough because both had coach Alford and coach (Craig) Neal running the show,” Martinez said Sunday night. “But I think there’s a lot of differences. This year’s team has a lot of team speed. A lot. And they have a lot of athleticism and depth. Those are the things that give them a real good chance to go deep in the tournament and I think they will.”
Alford said earlier this week he thought the 2010 team, which starting Mountain West play 0-2 then won 14 straight to win a regular season title, was a tired team by the time it reached postseason. The Lobos got bounced from the league tournament in the semifinals before struggling against No. 14 Montana in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Then they were run out of the gym by No. 11 Washington in the round of 32 in San Jose, Calif.
“We had tired legs,” Gary said Sunday of that 2010 team. “They’re playing a lot more bodies now than we were able to do. We had a lot of young guys on that bench. This team, I’m excited about it because they can run people down and use a lot of bodies. That’s a dangerous thing to have come March tournament time.”
While Alford has shortened his rotation quite a bit in the past few weeks, he still feels this team is peaking at the right time. He believes it enters the national tournament with more energy thanks to having the stress of a league title off his player’s shoulders since clinching the regular season crown with a full week yet to play.
“We seem to be hitting our stride a little bit more maybe with this team than that other team,” Alford said. “I think when you win 14 in a row in this league (like the 2010 team did), it wears on you. That was a fight right to the finish. We had to win the league championship at BYU (the second to last game of the regular season), which is not an easy place to play, let alone win a championship.
“I hope this team’s a little bit more fresh going into the NCAA Tournament. We’ll see.”
Both Gary and Martinez said Sunday they were excited about following this year’s team and are hopeful for a better showing than their team had in the tournament, but neither is yet willing to say the 2013 Lobos are better than their dream season team.
“We’d still take them,” Gary said. “I’m not ready to give that up. But if they get past this week, maybe I’ll tip my hat to them.”
Martinez had a similar sentiment.
“When it comes to me, Dairese and Darington, we did not like losing – it’s difficult to say,” Martinez said. “I think we pull it out, but we’re different teams. I guess I’d take the team coached by Alford and Neal, but if all things are equal, we didn’t like to lose.”
About 10 minutes after talking with the Journal on Sunday night about comparing the two teams, Martinez sent a text message after giving the “who would win?” question some more thought.
“I love this team, but me, Darington and Dairese aren’t losing that game!” he wrote.
As for this year’s team, senior Jamal Fenton, a freshman on that 2010 team, says he thinks this team may be more complete than that team, which had very little experience beyond the starting five.
“My freshman year we went 30-5 and that was a pretty good team, but I think this team, as a senior, we have better chemistry than that team my freshman year,” Fenton said after winning the regular season title in the Pit two weeks ago. “I think we’ll do well and go far in the tournament.”
AGAINST THE FIELD: Of the 67 other teams in the NCAA Tournament field announced Sunday, UNM played 10 of those teams over 17 games, going 13-4 vs. the tournament field.
COACHES POLL: The USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll was released Sunday night instead of its usual Monday morning release and had the Lobos ranked No. 10, up four spots from last week’s No. 14. The final Associated Press poll of the season will be released today.
2013 Mountain West Basketball Tournament | Men’s Basketball Championship Music Video
— This article appeared on page B1 of the Albuquerque Journal