Kragthorpe: New Mexico’s Sweet 16 quest runs through Utah
College basketball • SLC fans have five decades of familiarity with the Lobos
Published: March 18, 2013 05:54PM
Updated: March 21, 2013 11:25PM
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Kurt Kragthorpe

When last viewed in these parts, the New Mexico Lobos were getting Jimmered like nobody else.

New Mexico allowed a BYU-record 52 points to Jimmer Fredette in the 2011 Mountain West Tournament, resulting in a loss that ended the school’s 49 years of conference competition with BYU and Utah.

Two years later, here come the Lobos. Among the eight teams appearing this week in the NCAA Tournament at EnergySolutions Arena, Arizona regularly meets Utah in the Pac-12 and Gonzaga faces BYU in the West Coast Conference. But those schools can’t match New Mexico’s historical level of familiarity to Utahns.

And imagine this: After all these years of playing basketball in Utah, New Mexico could be using Salt Lake City as the launching point for the school’s first Sweet 16 appearance. By beating Harvard then Arizona or Belmont, the Lobos would do something they’ve never done.

They know it. “We would love to make history and make the Sweet 16. That would be amazing,” senior reserve Chad Adams said — and that was two weeks ago.

Since then, the Lobos (29-5) have gone on to win the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas and earn a No. 3 seed in the West Region. They’re well positioned for a program breakthrough, and they should be even better next season, when Utah State will join them in the MW.

“I’ve said it, we’ll put our starting five up against anybody,” UNM coach Steve Alford said after Saturday’s 63-56 win over UNLV for the tournament title.

Those starters include three juniors who appeared against BYU in Jimmer’s big game: guards Kendall Williams and Tony Snell and forward Cameron Bairstow. They’re joined by two sophomores, point guard Hugh Greenwood and center Alex Kirk.

That’s two Californians, two Australians and a New Mexican, and they just keep getting better.

“I think a big thing about college basketball is how guys develop,” Alford said. “We take a lot of pride in that. … That’s important to us, because we’ve got a lot of guys on the staff like myself that played the game, and we developed.”

Williams and Snell were good enough as freshmen to score 16 points each in a victory over BYU in Albuquerque. UNM also beat the Cougars in Provo that season, while inexplicably losing twice to Utah in Ute coach Jim Boylen’s last year.

The Lobos have improved steadily since then. Opponents are shooting 38.8 percent from the field, meaning UNM will have back-to-back defensive seasons of 40 percent or lower for the first time in 55 years. Competing in a loaded Mountain West and playing an ambitious nonconference schedule, the Lobos are 13-4 against teams in the NCAA field. They have two victories over Boise State, Colorado State, San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico State, besides beating Davidson, Valparaiso and Cincinnati. UNM lost to NCAA contestants South Dakota State, Saint Louis, San Diego State and UNLV. The Lobos’ only other defeat was a one-pointer at Air Force.

“They’ve grown, matured and developed,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice, a former BYU assistant. “So they don’t care who gets the shot. They don’t care who gets the basket. That’s just part of growing up and maturing as a program.”

Williams, the MW player of the year, scored 46 points (with 10 3-pointers) at Colorado State in February. Yet his team-leading average is only 13.5 points, illustrating the Lobos’ balance. Snell, known as a great defender, scored 21 points Saturday against UNLV and was named the tournament MVP.

“I think our identity is a collective thing,” Adams said. “We don’t have just one main player that the nation can focus on and say is our best player.”

That’s why the nation just now is noticing these Lobos. Some observers even like UNM’s chances of reaching the Final Four. History shows us that you first have to play in the Sweet 16.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt

New Mexico under Steve Alford:

Season Record Postseason

2007-08 24-9 NIT

2008-09 22-12 NIT

2009-10 30-5 NCAA

2010-11 22-13 NIT

2011-12 28-7 NCAA

2012-13 29-5 NCAA

Total 155-51

NCAA Tournament

At EnergySolutions Arena

Thursday’s second-round games

• (8) Pittsburgh vs. (9) Wichita State, 11:40 a.m., TBS

• (1) Gonzaga vs. (16) Southern, 2:10 p.m., TBS

• (6) Arizona vs. (11) Belmont, 5:20 p.m., TNT

• (3) New Mexico vs. (14) Harvard, 7:50 p.m., TNT

Saturday’s third-round games

• Gonzaga-Southern winner vs. Pittsburgh-Wichita State winner, TBD

• New Mexico-Harvard winner vs. Arizona-Belmont winner, TBD