After New Mexico captured its third straight Mountain West Basketball Championship title Saturday, first-year head coach Craig Neal climbed a ladder to snip the last strands of net from the rim. He then let out a yell of satisfaction.
That reaction came as a sense of relief, Neal said, partly since his Lobos lost the conference’s regular-season title the week earlier.
“To win the conference was a big relief because as a coach you felt like you let them down a little bit not winning Saturday (March 8),” Neal said on Monday. “Now we start a new chapter, and our guys have been pretty resilient and played at a high level.”
That chapter begins this week at the NCAA tournament. UNM (27-6) locked up the No. 7 seed in the South Region and will play No. 10 seed Stanford on Friday in St. Louis. It marks the third straight trip to the NCAAs, all coming as the Mountain West’s tournament champion.
Many Lobo fans felt slighted with the seventh seed, considering San Diego State received a No. 4 seed in the West. SDSU won the MW regular-season title by beating New Mexico but settled an at-large bid with the Lobos’ tourney crown.
Neal did not directly address the seeding question, the first one posed in his press conference, saying, “I can’t argue it. I can’t go forward. All I know is what’s in front of me, and that’s what I told my team.”
But Neal said his team did it job in a season that included wins over SDSU (twice) and Cincinnati, a No. 5 seed in the East. Ironically, Cincinnati will play a Harvard program that stunned UNM in last year’s second round while SDSU battles the Lobos’ in-state rival New Mexico State.
“We did what we were supposed to do, but I’m going to look at it differently now because why wouldn’t I just schedule whoever and win as many games as I can,” Neal said. “It didn’t really make a difference, so we know what the draw is and that’s how we’re going to approach it.”
The team will not do the same routine it did a year ago, Neal said. First off, New Mexico held its press conference on Monday afternoon instead of Selection Sunday. The team also had a private viewing of CBS’s Selection Show, not the large production at The Pit like last year. Neal said the looser Sunday schedule right after three straight MW tournament contests helped relieve some tension for the players.
New Mexico took Sunday and Monday off, and will have one practice Tuesday before departing Wednesday for St. Louis, Neal said.
Also, in previous years UNM opted for 5-on-0 drills during its practice for the NCAAs. This time, Neal said, the Lobos will run more scrimmages, situational exercises and game-like scenarios. One benefit to the seeding, Neal said, is the Lobos will play on Friday rather than Thursday.
“We were kind of run down last year at the end of the year, but I think our guys are fresher,” Neal said. “I think physically they’re in a lot better shape than they were a year ago, just minus one hell of a player in Tony Snell. It’s one of those things where hopefully we’ll have them ready to go.”