Why New Mexico deserves pre-Dance hype.
by Chris Deaton
These so-called mid-majors—a bastardized and convenient term for good teams no one knows a damn thing about—are always hard to peg.
Why should Team Fairfax, VA get in over Team BCS?
Because George Mason went to the Final Four, and rarely, these guys are for real. Davidson almost became an equal marvel. Butler nearly tipped Florida, flexed like Horford and charged about St. Lou like a bunch of yahoos.
(Or that’s what I would’ve done. I’m an alumnus.)
But those are the underdogs. 11-seeds, 10-seeds, even 5-seeds from the No Line on the Horizon League aren’t supposed to challenge the Big East/Ten/XII/etcetera mainstays. The Turiaf/Morrison ‘Zags, on the other hand, were. They eschewed mid-major and landed on Broadway from 2004-2006, receiving two 3-seeds and one 2, but advanced beyond the Dance’s first weekend only once—a far cry from their remarkable 7-3 Tournament record from 1999-2001 when they weren’t seeded better than 10.
It stands to reason, then, that the little guys are better positioned to make runs when they remain small and don’t act big.
New Mexico sits at a comfy 29-4, winners of 15 straight prior to encountering the figurative buzzsaw Friday night. We occasionally see such records from such programs—Calipari’s Memphis teams, for example, which weren’t so much mid-major as they were juggernauts in a league decimated by the Big East expansion, posted 33+ wins four consecutive years (3 of 4 if you’re into asterisks).
But only one of those seasons saw C-USA receive more than one bid to the Dance—2006, when UAB snuck in as a 9-seed and was promptly dispatched by Kentucky in the first round. This year’s Mountain West, on the other hand, has produced four 24-game-winning acronyms: UNM, BYU, UNLV and SDSU (Marshall Faulk University). All stand to make the Field of 65, and hardly as patsies.
Indeed, San Diego State has dropped eight, but their possession of the Lobos’ number has buoyed their résumé. UNLV is building a March pedigree and dropped Louisville in December. The Cougars have hot, mature guard play—the almighty silver bullet for postseason ball—and could drop 80 on anyone.
And New Mexico, simply put, could beat anyone.
Maybe it’s a valid rap against them that their best non-conference victories came against teams that have fallen off the map. But though Cal and Texas Tech may have slipped, and Texas A+M isn’t the cream of the Big 12’s crop, all were ranked at the time of their meetings with UNM, and all lost. Dayton fell victim to an Atlantic 10 that ate its own young—they were top-25 caliber for much of the year, and that includes their New Year’s Day tussle with New Mexico. They, too, dropped a 68-66 decision to the Lobos.
Another feather in UNM’s cap: their coach. Steve Alford took Missouri State to the Sweet 16 once upon a time, and though his tenure at Iowa ended unceremoniously, his best seasons were among the program’s most noteworthy in some time—three Tournament appearances in six years, including a second-place finish in the Big Ten in 2006.
(And it’s worth noting that current Hawkeye headman Todd Lickliter has struggled mightily—perhaps a reflection upon the difficulties of coaching at a BCS conference bottom-feeder.)
Alford’s experience is something many upstart schools lack. Though his March credentials are hardly complete, he’s seen the end zone a time or two, and won’t be frozen in the headlights when his team gets its time on CBS.
Neither will Darington Hobson, the junior newcomer who wound up filling a nightly line of 16.2/9.3/4.5 en route to Mountain West POY honors. He put up 28 and 15 in the first postseason game of his DI career, and lit the aforementioned Berkley Bears and Red Raiders (presented by O’Reilly Auto Parts) for 22 and 13 and 23 and 12, respectively.
Hobson’s chief help: conference first-teamer and backcourt mate Dairese Gary, and unsung rock Roman Martinez, a second-teamer, of whom Hobson said, “Take me off [the first team] and put Ro on.” The trio keys an offense that averages close to 77 points per and finds itself repeatedly in tight situations—16 of New Mexico’s 33 games have been decided by single digits.
A knock? No. You could do worse than prepping for tournament ball by playing close contests against stiff league foes and Dance-quality teams. It never fails that everything tightens in March—when UNM hits that point, they’ll boast the benefit of having been there on numerous occasions.
All of these positives, of course, guarantee nothing for New Mexico besides a favorable Tournament seed. But because they’re competition-tested and talent-approved, they’re the latest in a line of overachieving mid-major programs that could do what the 21st-century Gonzaga has failed to accomplish: sit at the big boys’ table and eat their food, too.