Photo: Makuach Maluach (in white) scored a game-high 23 points in the Lobos’ 77-65 win against CSU. Maluach also added 10 rebounds. (Courtesy/GoLobos.com)
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
Just six more wins, and the New Mexico men’s basketball will reach its goal of making the NCAA Tournament.
OK. Before you think I’m going Lobo fan-boy message board, UNM SID spin-cycle.com or “AbqMediaLovesLobos,” that is obviously tongue-in-cheek.
Because the Lobos only need four straight wins to reach their goal.
But Saturday’s doesn’t count.
UNM did end its three-game losing streak in this, so far, train-wreck-of-a-season with a 77-65 home win against Colorado State on Saturday night. But the Lobos’ post-season tournament chances are exactly where they were before Saturday. Heck, those chances are where they’ve been since, pretty much, since late November.
With two games remaining — at home against Boise State on Wednesday and at Wyoming on Saturday — the only thing that matters postseason-wise for the Lobos is the Mountain West Conference tournament in two weeks in Las Vegas. They need to run off four straight wins there to keep the season alive.
The Lobos had a good win on Saturday, which they needed. They need momentum and chemistry heading into the MW tournament, and maybe beating CSU is a start. They also needed to stop that skid.
The Mountain West got a good win as well. Actually, a great one.
While the Lobos were downing the Rams, many fans across the country were glued to 12th-ranked Nevada at Utah State in the biggest MW matchup of the season — which tipped off 30 minutes before New Mexico and Colorado State.
Utah State took a scintillating 81-76 win against Nevada, and that will probably allow the Aggies to join the Wolf Pack in the NCAA Tournament. A win by yet another team in the MW Tournament — and who knows?
The MW for three?
Wow, that’s a far cry from “Definitely a one-bid league. Definitely.”
OK, Rain Man.
The one-bid deal is all we’ve heard all season. And I fess up. I’m as guilty as the real experts in thinking such. I, too, thought this a one-bid league. Maybe being around the game more this season — and being around those sports-brilliant pundits — diminished my prognostication skills and realistic views a bit.
In defense of the dense, the league has been mediocre — at best. That’s allowed a few teams to break loose from others. The MW is like a house with a nice front porch but with a leaky basement full of cobwebs.
Races within a race
With Saturday’s win, the Lobos (12-16, 6-10) put a little room between themselves and the bottom feeders of the Mountain West and moved them into the mix for middle-of-the-pack positions.
Colorado State (12-17, 7-9) is in that mid-level dance as well, as is Boise State (11-18, 6-10), which lost an overtime heartbreaker at UNLV (16-13, 10-7) on Saturday.
Air Force (13-15, 8-8) is the other middle-of-the-road contender.
Wyoming (6-23, 2-14) and San Jose State (4-24, 1-15) will be the 10th and 11th seeds, but which one gets the basement is still to be determined.
While all that drama was being played out in the middle of the league on Saturday — yes, more tongue-in-cheek — the biggest league game of the season was going on in Logan, Utah, and drew national attention.
Utah State (24-6, 14-3) — one of the most entertaining and fundamentally sound teams in the nation, continued its blazing run with the win against Nevada (23-3, 13-3). The victory also gave the Aggies the top spot in the league standings, probably handed first-year coach Craig Smith MW coach of the year honors and very likely landed the program a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
It was a raucous scene in Logan on Saturday.
Maybe too raucous. Aggies fans immediately filled the entire floor as the game ended, and there are allegations that some touched, harassed and possibly hit Nevada players.
Video posted online by KUTV2 in Salt Lake City showed an agitated Nevada star Jordan Caroline yelling and punching the glass of a fire extinguisher case, cutting his knuckle. He then had to be held back from returning back up the hallway.
I get the fan-demonium. And I love seeing impromptu celebrations. But obviously, court storms have become increasingly more problematic in recent years.
We’ll see what comes of the celebration, but I just know the game itself was March Madness at its best. It was a display of great execution, incredible energy and a fan base that has clearly vaulted past San Diego State’s “The Show” as best in the league.
USU is simply a wonderful team to watch. It plays the game as it is meant to be played. The offense is fluid inside and out, and the defense is punishing. To borrow a phrase from the soccer legends down south, the Aggies are college basketball’s version of “The Beautiful Game.”
USU’s win also was yet another slap in the face to those who had Nevada locked into the No. 1 seed in the upcoming MW tournament and have been pondering a way for the Lobos to avoid playing the Wolf Pack in the second round of the event.
Nevada can still grab the top seed, but how much does that really matter? UNM needs to worry about winning one of those three stay-in games before thinking about the second round. The league’s bottom six teams all square off in the first round of the tournament, while the top five get byes.
Utah State finishes its regular season at Colorado State on Tuesday.
The Wolf Pack is at Air Force on Tuesday and finishes their regular season at home on Saturday against San Diego State.
So, where does all this leave UNM?
Who the heck knows?
The pundits certainly don’t. Nobody can guarantee how everything will shake out in the final week — but does it really matter?
Yes, by finishing sixth or seventh, the Lobos would get a shot at one of the worst teams in college basketball — either Wyoming or San Jose State — for their stay-in game in Vegas. But is that even a huge advantage?
See: San Jose State 89, UNM 82 last week.
But why have some been trying desperately to figure the best way to get the Lobos out of a second-round meeting with Nevada? What’s the better scenario?
Do fans want another shot at Utah State — which might not have the league’s best athletes but definitely plays the best team ball in the league and beat UNM in both meetings this season? The Aggies have won 13 of their last 14.
How about Fresno State (20-8, 11-5), another team that went 2-0 against UNM? Or maybe UNLV? On the Rebels’ home floor? Yep, the Lobos are 0-2 against UNLV as well.
UNM is 1-1 against San Diego State (19-10, 11-5), with both teams winning easily on its home floor. I guess that seems like the best-case scenario. But again, where does a Lobo team need to finish to set that game up as a possible second-round matchup?
But why the fear of Nevada? That No. 12 ranking is going to take another spill in this week’s Top 25 poll. The Wolf Pack have lost two of their past four games — and let’s not forget that New Mexico is 1-1 against Nevada, having destroyed the Wolf Pack 85-58 at Dreamstyle Arena in January.
The bottom line is, the Lobos should simply worry about themselves — cutting down turnovers, rebounding better and playing hard-nosed defense. It also wouldn’t hurt to make layups and passes and dribble without looking at the ball and other minor things like that.
So how about this for a plan? Beat Boise State on Wednesday to send Lobo seniors Anthony Mathis and Dane Kuiper out with a Senior Night win, then take care of business in Laramie against the cockeyed Cowboys? Let whatever shakes out in the standings shake out, and not worry about that second round until winning a stay-in game.
And what the heck does that second-round game matter anyway — be it against Nevada or anyone else?
The Lobos will enter the MW tournament needing to win all four games — not just one or two. It doesn’t matter whether they play Nevada in the quarterfinals, semifinals, finals or at all.
Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for more than 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.