If there's one article of unquestioned faith in college basketball, it's the paramount importance of avoiding "bad losses." In 2011-12, New Mexico has not avoided bad losses.
Way back on November 16 the Lobos lost at home to New Mexico State. The Aggies are actually better than most people realize, but losing at home by nine points to a WAC opponent that's "better than most people realize" is no great endorsement. Even that loss, however, was less damaging than what was to come. On November 24 New Mexico lost in overtime in the opening round of the 76 Classic in Anaheim to Santa Clara.
You'll hear that loss brought up anytime the subject of New Mexico arises over the next three weeks. The Broncos currently sport an RPI of 274, and their record stands at 8-17 overall, 0-12 in the West Coast Conference. True, Santa Clara also beat Villanova, and anyway back in November Kevin Foster was still playing -- the Broncos' leading scorer was later suspended for the duration of the season. Even so, the Lobos' November is not where they want the NCAA tournament selection committee to direct its attention.
Instead, Steve Alford would rather discuss his team in the present tense. The Lobos are 6-2 in Mountain West play, and tied for first atop the conference with San Diego State. The Aztecs have been a fixture in the top 25 for weeks now because their November losses were inflicted upon them by the eminently respectable likes of Baylor and Creighton. Then there's also the fact that in the previous meeting between these two teams, in Albuquerque on January 18, SDSU emerged victorious by the score of 75-70.
Now, here's the interesting part. In spite of those bad November losses, and despite the fact that they lost on their home floor to their main conference rival, New Mexico has been the Mountain West's top team on a per-possession basis by a very wide margin. Simply put, the numbers suggest that the pollsters whiffed on this one and that unranked UNM is in fact the best team in the league.
Well, unranked UNM will get its chance to prove just that. Tonight they visit San Diego State, and the winner will emerge from the game in sole possession of first place in the MWC. In advance of a showdown that should have weighty implications on Selection Sunday, let's make our best and most informed assessment of this New Mexico team.
The Lobos have put together an amazing run on D.
New Mexico's two losses in Mountain West play came in consecutive games in January, at the hands of San Diego State and UNLV.
("We had one bad week," is how freshman guard Hugh Greenwood has put it.) The Aztecs and Rebels were able to score a goodly number of points against this defense, but no other offense in the league can make that claim. In conference play the Lobos have held their opponents to just 0.88 points per possession. Throw out the SDSU and UNLV losses, and that number dips all the way down to an absurd 0.77 points allowed per trip.
UNM doesn't force many turnovers, and the Lobos are just average on the defensive glass. But this defense stays away from foul trouble and they defend tenaciously on both sides of the arc. Recall that Alford made his name way back in 1999 with a team that was then called Southwest Missouri State (now simply Missouri State). The Bears reached that year's Sweet 16 behind a defense that held Wisconsin and Tennessee to just 32 and 51 points, respectively. In other words, Alford knows his way around a defense, and it looks like this year's Lobos are proving to be good students.
A deep rotation headed by Snell, Williams, and Gordon.
New Mexico plays at a normal pace and, as noted above, the Lobos generally don't emphasize going after takeaways. So it's interesting to note that despite playing more or less a traditional half-court style, Alford chooses to use a rotation that can go as deep as nine players. Headlining that horde are three starters: 6-7 sophomore Tony Snell, 6-3 sophomore Kendall Williams, and 6-9 senior Drew Gordon.
Snell was a role player as a freshman, but this season he's blossomed into a potent scoring threat, one who's accurate on both his frequent threes and on his occasional twos. Williams is adept at drawing fouls from the point guard position, and he's proven to be an effective scorer from both outside and (especially) inside the arc. Lastly, you simply can't have an esteemed team in the western U.S. without a UCLA transfer, and onetime Bruin Drew Gordon fills that requirement for the Lobos. The senior is one of the top defensive rebounders in the nation, but his work on the offensive glass is equally important for a UNM team that has proven to be somewhat turnover-prone.
Scheduling involves an element of luck.
On paper Alford scheduled the big boys for his team this season. The Lobos played no fewer than five major-conference opponents in the non-conference portion of their schedule, and UNM went a perfect 5-0. Good news, right? Yes and no. Winning games is good. Then again the major-conference teams that the Lobos beat were Arizona State, Washington State, Boston College, USC, and Oklahoma State. If you put the names of all 74 major-conference teams in a hat and told a mid-major coach to draw five opponents at random, that coach would be hard pressed to not get a single NCAA tournament team. But that's what happened with New Mexico this year. Scheduling is an imperfect art.
After tonight's showdown in San Diego, New Mexico will return home for a game with UNLV on Saturday. This could be a season-defining week for the Lobos. If they manage to record two wins, the bad losses of November will seem like a very long time ago.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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