By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
The question keeps coming. This week, it was my time to ask it.
Is the New Mexico Lobo men’s basketball team on the verge of turning the corner and making a run like last season?
The Lobos haven’t played since their 68-66 loss to Utah State on Jan. 26 in the Pit, when the Aggies’ Abel Porter buried a 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds remaining for the win.
So has the heartache from that loss — and having a week to think about it before the next game — helped the Lobos (9-11, 3-5), maybe, turn that corner going into their game tonight (Feb. 2) at Fresno State (15-5, 6-2)?
The oddsmakers don’t think so; Fresno State was listed as a 9-point favorite on Friday for the game that begins at 8 p.m. Mountain Time.
The Lobos got a horrible break when transfer JaQuan Lyle, who was going to be the team’s starting point guard, was lost for the season with an injury just before the official start of in September.
Add the Lobos did get a bad break against Utah State when UNM senior Anthony Mathis was mistakenly called for an over-and-back violation with 38.9 seconds remaining and the Lobos leading 66-65. Bad break, yes. But not the killer as many fans, media and UNM coaches claimed. Truth is, there were endless scenarios that still could have played out had the violation not been called. Earlier this week, I wrote a column about ESPN’s computer-driven Gamecast — which gives the win probability with each play — and how it barely changed the Lobos’ chances of winning, from 54.2 percent before the turnover to 53.5 percent after.
There was the near miraculous comeback against New Mexico State in the Pit, in which UNM trailed by 19 points with less than nine minutes left in the game and were still down 92-79 with less than two minutes remaining. The Aggies started bricking from the line (a good break for the home team), and with the Pit more than half empty UNM kept scratching back. The Lobos actually had possession down 96-94 with eight seconds remaining before turning it over.
That would have been improbable all right, but an improbably victory for the Lobos had they pulled it out. I can’t remember a whole lot of other games that could be called misfortune for UNM. Most games, wins and losses, haven’t been very close.
And don’t forget how the Lobos won their opener 87-84 at Cal State Northridge with a 3-point desperation bank shot from 30 feet by Mathis at the final buzzer. And the Lobos were favored by 14 points.
I’d have to say that was one heckuva break for UNM.
Still, the loss to Utah State is the stinger everyone has been thinking about this week. And it led to some silly comments from media, fans and even Weir, comparing the loss to what the New Orleans Saints and coach Sean Payton suffered in the NFC Championship game earlier in the week.
On Thursday, Weir didn’t speak specifically about his postgame comment that he “felt like Sean Payton” after the USU loss, but during Thursday’s news conference he admitted that he might have said a few things on the spur of the moment.
OK, so USU is in the rear-view mirror and it’s time for Fresno State. But is there time for a similar run to last year?
Without a doubt, there is time. Whether the Lobos make such a run is the question.
But it should be noted, that while there has been some goofy talk this week that Weir, in his second year as UNM coach, is going through a “sophomore slump,” the records say otherwise.
I can’t remember ever hearing the phrase “sophomore slump” applied to coaches, but if anyone is thinking the season is a lost cause — which it could be — it’s not because that’s what happens to coaches in their second season.
Granted, expectations were high for UNM and San Diego State this season — but those expectations were mostly based on their last season-runs last year, not on their “total body of work,” as the cliche mongers like to say.
After 20 games this season, the Lobos are 9-11.
After 20 games last season, the Lobos were 9-11.
After 20 games this season, SDSU was 12-8.
After 20 games this season, SDSU is 12-8.
The Lobos did have a better MWC record last year at this point of the season, having beaten UNLV in their 20th game to go 4-3 in the league. They are 3-5 this season.
But San Diego State’s record was actually worse at the same point last season. The Aztecs were 4-5 in the league and soon dipped to 5-7. They are 4-3 to this point this year.
But both the Lobos and Aztecs finished on great runs. UNM won seven straight to get to the MWC title game while SDSU won eight straight to get there. The Aztecs beat New Mexico 82-75 in that championship game for an NCAA Tournament berth — creating high expectations for both teams in 2018-19.
The point is, besides doing a little fact-checking, that both UNM and SDSU are right where they were at this time last year. There’s still time, folks.
Does that mean they will both go on late-season tears and again meet in the league tournament title game? Well, very doubtful.
But there are still plenty of games left for Weir and Dutcher to break away from that dreaded coaching “sophomore slump” and have the success of their “fab frosh” seasons?
Obviously, there is time. Little has changed from this time last year.
Now it’s a matter of finally finding the right intersection, and turning that corner.
Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for four decades, and is one of the most decorated sports journalists in state history. Smith has won more than 30 combined awards in print, television and radio. He is the editor in chief of Enchantment Sports. Contact him at mark.enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com.