LAS VEGAS, Nev. – It can be both.
While no one Lobo player or coach seemed to articulate it the exact same way late Thursday night after the UNM men’s basketball team’s 91-76 loss to Utah State in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Conference tournament, the general consensus seemed to be a combination of the same sentiment: You can be both disappointed and proud of how the 2022-23 season – one that is not yet done, mind you – has played out.
The Lobos (22-11) genuinely believe they have the talent and pieces to be in the NCAA Tournament.
They instead wait to find out who and where they will play next week in the NIT.
“It’s disappointing, man, because that’s one of the things I set (as a goal) coming here — getting to the NCAA Tournament,” Lobo senior forward Morris Udeze, a transfer before the season from Wichita State, said in the team’s locker room. “Having such a great start (to the season), then just did (what we did) in conference was tough.”
And they realize they have nobody to blame but themselves, their poor defense of late and, yes, those three heartbreaking losses – one with a controversial call at the end of double overtime on the road and two buzzer-beater home losses UNM had a lead in as the ball was in the air, in the final second of regulation.
Before those, it was, indeed, that 14-0 start to the season coupled with a national ranking that recalibrated the expectations of Lobo Nation – a fan base that despite having not seen its team win 20 games in a season or sniffed a postseason tournament of any kind since 2014, somehow was feeling let down late Thursday night after watching their team lose for the eighth time in the past 11 games. That meant relegation into to the NIT, not an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Richard Pitino, the second-year Lobos coach who took over a team that won just four games against Division I opponents the season before he arrived in Albuquerque, opened his remarks late Thursday in the postgame press conference at the Thomas & Mack Center expressing disappointment. But later, he gave an emphatic answer about how he can’t feel any disappointment about this season.
“I would say there’s not even a little part in my body that’s disappointed with this season,” Pitino said. “I felt as though we would be much improved from last year. We were. …
“So, no. I never set the bar for (the) NCAA Tournament in Year 2. I think that’s crazy when you take over a six-win team and you just had to start over. So when I take a deep breath and think about this season, I am going to be insanely proud of what we’ve been able to do.”
As for the NIT, bring it on, say the Lobos players.
“We just lost, so it’s kind of a lot to think about right now, but I’m ready to play whenever,” said Lobo guard Jamal Mashburn, Jr. “Whenever we play or whoever we play, I’m ready to go.”
Fellow team co-captain K.J. Jenkins added, “We’ll play tomorrow, if that’s needed. … The NIT, we are very grateful for that and I’m looking to go win that NIT.”
The 32-team NIT field will be announced Sunday night after the NCAA Tournament’s 68-team field is unveiled. The higher-seeded team hosts games in the first three rounds before the semifinals (March 28) and championship game (March 30) are played in Las Vegas’ Orleans Arena.
UNM has already been in contact with the NCAA, informing them the Pit is available to host games for Round 1 (Tuesday or Wednesday) and for the Sunday, March 19 slot in Round 2 (the Pit is hosting the state high school spirit championship on March 18).
Round 3 games are not available in the Pit due to a pre-existing contract withe the PBR’s annual bullriding stop in Albuquerque.
“There is zero entitlement to me as it pertains to playing in the NIT. Zero,” Pitino said. “We haven’t been in the postseason since 2014, so it’s all about perspective. …
“Yeah, we all want to go to the NCAA Tournament all the time, but we jumped about 250 spots in the NET (rankings), 250 spots in KenPom (rankings) since we got here. High, high level of pride. And getting the fans back made me the most proud of all of it. This town has been buzzing for this team, and we’re going to continue to build off it.”