Overlooked, underestimated Lobos begin unlikely tournament run
It’s all a matter of perspective.
The University of New Mexico men’s basketball team has already matched its high-water mark each of the last two seasons and is one win away from more W’s than any Lobo team has managed in four years, yet somehow its 17-14 record heading into Thursday’s Mountain West Tournament opener feels vastly different than that same mark last year.
Head coach Paul Weir knows it. His players feel it.
UNM will be looking to extend its season Thursday night when it faces Wyoming in the quarterfinals at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nev. The Cowboys rolled past San Jose State in Wednesday’s opening round that also saw tournament host UNLV and 7-seed Utah State advance with wins. The Lobos have gone one-and-done at the event each of the last three years.
“It would be nice just to get a win and stay there for a little while,” said senior Joe Furstinger. “I’ve never done that.”
The fact that the Lobos are even to this point is perhaps the most remarkable story in the MWC this season. Picked ninth in the preseason, they finished third in the regular season and come into the tournament with a five-game winning streak.
All that didn’t amount to much when it came to the postseason awards lists made public this week. Both the media and coaches’ polls recognized two players, senior point guard Antino Jackson and junior shooting guard Anthony Mathis, as afterthoughts on the all-MWC teams while Weir was second in voting for coach of the year to Nevada’s Eric Musselman.
All season, Weir has leaned on his team being picked so low as a source of motivation for his players.
“They were wrong then, so they could just as easily be wrong now,” he said. “At the time when those rankings came out, they were all over our locker room, they were things I talked about. [Athlon] picked us 11th out of 11. We know all the names of the writers, where they picked us. I knew all that, and I still know that. They’re sitting on my door.”
At least one of his proponents stepped forward this week to remind everyone he saw a third-place finish coming. Northern New Mexico College head coach Ryan Cordova said just days before his team opened UNM’s season he saw Weir doing things with the Lobos that no one in their right mind could have predicted back in October, let along after the team’s 3-8 start in December.
“You know, if I were a fan and saw the team I was watching was 3-8, running all over the place, shooting a ton of 3s and pressing all game, I might wonder what they were doing, too,” Weir said. “I’m just glad people have been patient and the players have bought in. None of this is possible without them.”