The UNM men’s soccer team’s pursuit of an NCAA Tournament berth begins in earnest Wednesday on the banks of the Ohio River.
The Lobos (10-6-1) face 19th-ranked Kentucky in the opening match of the Conference USA tournament being held at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va.
New Mexico is the fifth seed, while Kentucky (11-4-2) is seeded fourth.
“It’s quite a good team,” New Mexico coach Jeremy Fishbein said of the Wildcats. “But that’s the matchup you want. You want to be challenged. If you want to go to the NCAA Tournament, these are the teams you have to beat.”
UNM is 40th in the NCAA’s Ratings Percentage Index. The NCAA Tournament fields 48 teams.
The Lobos have won three in a row, but the last time they were shut out was a 1-0 loss at Kentucky on Sept. 25.
“They’re a real organized team,” Fishbein said. “They defend with numbers. Well-coached. They don’t try to reinvent the wheel.”
The Lobos are led offensively by seniors Niko Hansen and Chris Wehan, who were named first-team all-conference Tuesday.
Hansen leads the league in goals (10), points (21) and game-winning goals (five).
Lobo freshman defender Tom Smart was a second-team selection.
“Tom’s been really consistent, has a great mentality,” Fishbein said. “He’s played at a high level and brings a lot of confidence.”
Midfielder Chris Gurule was picked to the third team. Smart and Matthew Constant were named to the all-freshmen team.
This is UNM’s fourth year in C-USA and it has yet to win a conference tournament match.
“This is a new team,” Fishbein said. “This team has not played in a Conference USA tournament game. I’m very confident in this team.”
If the Lobos win, they would face fifth-ranked and No. 1 seed Charlotte in the semifinals Friday.
UNM has not received an NCAA Tournament invitation since 2013, the year the Lobos reached the Final Four.
No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 5 UNM
noon, Huntington, W.Va.