For years now ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has done an excellent job anticipating what the NCAA’s selection committee will do. His Bracketology feature has attained the status of conventional wisdom–and I mean that in the best way. Lunardi’s brackets distill and express the current thinking of the hoops world through the formalist medium of a 65-team bracket.
So when we’re verging on Valentine’s Day and New Mexico is still nowhere to be seen in Lunardi’s brackets–not even among the ”first four” or “next four” left out–you know things are bleak for the Lobos’ tourney chances.
Understandably so. Steve Alford’s team is just 14-9, a record that includes six non-conference losses to teams with RPIs anywhere between 69 (Creighton) to a shield-your-eyes 135 (Drake). With an RPI of just 81, UNM is clearly on the outside looking in when it comes to any Madness next month.
There’s just one problem. To this point in the season New Mexico has been the best team in the Mountain West. By far.
The Mountain West’s Clear Front Runner: Pace and Efficiency Rankings
Through games of February 4, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)
Pace PPP PPP EM
1. New Mexico 64.7 1.13 0.93 +0.20
2. San Diego St. 65.4 1.09 0.98 +0.11
3. BYU 68.6 1.10 0.99 +0.11
4. Utah 65.7 1.09 0.99 +0.10
5. UNLV 64.9 1.06 0.98 +0.08
6. TCU 62.6 1.01 1.07 -0.06
7. Wyoming 67.3 1.03 1.16 -0.13
8. Colorado St. 66.0 0.97 1.14 -0.17
9. Air Force 58.0 0.84 1.13 -0.29
Any team that has both its conference’s best offense and its best defense in league play is truly a team to be reckoned with. (This description also fits LSU, by the way. The Tigers are on-track to be the subject of a similar post very soon.)
It seems to me that nine out of any ten random hoops fans pulled off the street would rather give a surging team like the Lobos a bid in place of a high-major-conference team that is in free fall (cough, cough, Baylor; wheeze, wheeze, Georgetown). Better yet, ask first round opponents who they’d rather play.
I’m not promising New Mexico will be worthy of a bid come Selection Sunday (which by the way is March 15 this year). In fact they’ve got a tough game coming up Saturday night at home against UNLV. But what I am saying is that if, like me, you’d like to see a selection process that’s a little less Calvinist, a little less obsessed with original RPI sin, and a little more cognizant of actual on-court performance in the non-discretionary portion of the schedule (i.e., conference play), then the Lobos are the team to watch for the next 38 days.