March Madness is finally here, and with it comes the much-awaited Mountain West Tournament for the UNM men’s basketball team.
After a 64-59 victory over San Diego State on Saturday, the Lobos (17-13, 10-8 MW) were able to finish the regular season in the top five of the conference, which earned them a bye that sent them straight into next Thursday’s quarterfinals to face the Fresno State Bulldogs.
The tournament is a big deal because it will most likely decide who gets to go to this year’s NCAA Tournament.
“I think (the Lobos) understand that and are hungry for that. We’ll find out,” said UNM head coach Craig Neal. “You can’t win the championship unless you win the first one.”
University of New Mexico
After the Lobos’ win on Saturday, junior guard Elijah Brown went on Twitter to ask the rhetorical question, “Why not us huh” followed by a thinking emoji and two sunglasses emojis. Several fans have also been tweeting the same phrase.
This seems to accurately represent the feelings of the team.
Injuries hit the team several times this season. Perhaps the biggest setback was losing senior Tim Williams for a total of nine games. The forward missed two games in December due to concussion protocol and seven in February due to a stress reaction on his left foot.
Williams was back on the court for last Saturday’s game. However, the coaching staff is still taking precautions and had him sit out on this past Monday’s practice, since he is a valuable player in the offense, averaging 17.5 points per game. The only other consistent scorer New Mexico has is Brown, who averages 18.9 points.
The Lobos took four losses during Williams’ most recent absences. However, it was also during this period that other players stepped up to contribute in the offense. These players included Sam Logwood, Dane Kuiper, Obij Aget and Damien Jefferson.
“The one thing that’s unique about Tim being out is we’ve been able to nurture some other players,” Neal said, adding that this might be a good thing now that Williams is back.
The Lobos’ biggest strength offensively is on the free throw line. At 75.2 percent, the team currently leads the conference in free throw percentage and is 35th in the nation.
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Even though there have been setbacks, New Mexico has proven that it can be strong on the road. This season, it became the first team in Mountain West history to take down San Diego State, Colorado State and Boise State on the road in a single season.
The Bulldogs finished the regular season with an overall record of 19-11 and 11-7 in the conference.
Early in February, Fresno State was on a three-game losing skid. However, they were able to break it and finish the season strong, winning their last five games.
This season, the teams split the series. New Mexico took a 78-73 victory when the Bulldogs visited WisePies Arena on Dec. 28. However, when the Lobos traveled to California on Feb. 18, it was Fresno who had a 71-61 victory at the Save Mart Center.
The Bulldogs have proved themselves this season by sweeping the series for both Nevada and Boise State.
The team’s offense sees an average of 74.3 point per game while allowing 70.2 to opponents. Four players average in double figures, but it is Jaron Hopkins who leads the team with 13.3 points per game.
The Bulldogs have found recent success even without senior Karachi Edo, who missed the last six games due to an ankle injury. Edo was seen at practice on Wednesday, so there is a chance he might be able to play against the Lobos.
Edo was not eligible to play in the fall because he failed to meet NCAA academic requirements. He began playing on Dec. 20 and has played a total of 14 games this season. He averages 9.1 points per game, which is the fifth highest on his team. However, his real strength is in rebounds, where he averages 6.9.
If the Lobos pull a win against Fresno, they will move on to the Friday semifinals where they will take on the Utah State Aggies or the Nevada Wolf Pack. These two teams will face each other on Thursday at noon.
Utah State earned its spot in the quarterfinals after taking down San Jose State 90-64 on Wednesday afternoon. The Aggies took a 79-75 win at Utah on Jan. 4 but the Lobos retaliated by winning 74-61 at home.
Nevada is the No. 1 seed and a team that makes some Lobo fans a little nervous. The Wolf Pack swept this season’s series, first taking down the Lobos 105-104 in Albuquerque, and then 82-65 in Reno. The first win resulted from an outstanding comeback that Nevada had in the last few minutes of regulation time.
The team’s comeback against the Lobos, along with several other good performances throughout the regular season, show how strong Nevada can be. However, the Wolf Pack is far from unbeatable.
Utah State was able to pull off a 74-57 victory on Feb. 1. Nevada also fell to Fresno State twice this season, one being a 77-76 loss at California, the other an 81-76 loss in Reno.
The facts above should be reassuring. However, some fans still wonder if being on the other side of the bracket would have been better for New Mexico. Is the grass really greener on the other side? Neal said no.
If the Lobos had finished as the No. 6 seed, they would’ve had to play on Wednesday’s first round. Neal said he did not like the idea of the Lobos having to win four straight games to get the tournament trophy. He said that although he believes his team is capable of doing it, he felt it wasn’t the kind of pressure anyone wanted.
“Nobody has ever played four games and won it,” he said. “Why would I want to be on that side? It would’ve come with a loss on senior night and not as much confidence. Going in, I think we are in a good place.”
Isabel Gonzalez is a sports reporter for the Daily Lobo. She mainly covers men’s soccer and basketball. She can be reached at sports @dailylobo.com or on Twitter @cisabelg.