LAS VEGAS — Nearly an hour after his team's impressive 63-56 victory over host UNLV in Saturday's Mountain West title game, New Mexico coach Steve Alford took a seat at the podium for his press conference still wearing his favorite fashion accessory.
Around his neck was the Thomas & Mack Center net the Lobos cut down moments earlier.
"I know our fans like it," Alford explained. "I try to do a lot of the things that our fans like."
New Mexico won't have to cut down another net in two weeks to satisfy mounting expectations, but the pressure is definitely on the Lobos to deliver in the NCAA tournament. This year's team represents the program's best chance to reach its first Sweet 16 since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams and it represents the Mountain West's best chance to tear down its reputation for underachieving in March.
Even though New Mexico has reached the NCAA tournament 10 times since 1991, none of those teams won more than one game. That streak includes the 2010 Lobos, who earned a No. 3 seed after winning 29 games in the regular season but narrowly escaped 14th-seeded Montana in the opening round before falling by 18 points to 11th-seeded Washington in their next game.
Sweet 16s haven't been quite as elusive for the rest of the Mountain West, but the conference hasn't exactly enjoyed the same postseason success it has in the regular season recently. Not only did the Mountain West go 1-4 in the NCAA tournament last March despite producing three teams seeded No. 6 or better, the league is just 8-15 overall in March Madness since 2008.
There's certainly reason to believe this March could be different for the Mountain West considering the apparent strength of the league in the regular season. The Mountain West has alternated back and forth with the Big Ten at the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in conference RPI all season and it could land as many as five NCAA tournament bids if Boise State is selected to join New Mexico, UNLV, Colorado State and San Diego State.
Steve Alford (Getty Images)"I think our league has proven we're a great basketball league," Alford said. "The next step for our league is to have multiple teams to do well in the NCAA tournament. We've had splashes. We've had teams get in and win a game, maybe win two games. But this is a year that when you look at our five teams I think are going to get into the tournament, I think all five teams can advance in this tournament and advance deep in this tournament if the matchups hit right."
Alford is certainly correct several Mountain West teams are capable of a run.
UNLV is loaded with size and talent up and down its roster, Colorado State rebounds better than any team in the nation and guard-heavy San Diego State is finally getting healthy at the right time. Still, as New Mexico proved during the regular season and again during its three victories in Las Vegas this week, if any Mountain West team is capable of a deep NCAA tournament run, it's probably the Lobos.
Expected to vie with Colorado State for third place behind favorites UNLV and San Diego State, New Mexico instead exceeded all preseason projections. With Alex Kirk returning from injury and filling the interior void left by Drew Gordon and a deep, versatile backcourt benefiting from another year of experience, New Mexico went 13-2 against the toughest non-league schedule of Alford's tenure and rolled to the Mountain West title.
This week, New Mexico delighted the thousands of Lobos fans who traveled to Las Vegas to support them by blowing past Wyoming and San Diego State before overcoming a stiffer challenge from amped-up UNLV.
Like boxers ready for a prize fight, the Rebels wore the hoods of their red and white zip-up warmups over their heads during lineup introductions. The Rebels traded punches with the Lobos for a while and actually closed to within a point with less than nine minutes to play, but New Mexico guard Tony Snell delivered the knockout blow, spearheading a 10-2 surge with a pair of 3-pointers, an up-and-under layup and a driving layup.
That Snell led the Lobos with a game-high 21 points on 8 of 11 shooting is a testament to how many different ways New Mexico can beat teams. Kirk and all-conference guard Kendall Williams both endured off nights in their third game in three days, but New Mexico played its usual physical, stingy defense in the paint and Snell, Hugh Greenwood and Cameron Bairstow picked up the slack on offense.
"It definitely shows how unselfish we are," Snell said. "We just try to move the ball around. We like to see each other get going and make buckets."
Having won the regular season title and the conference tournament in one of the top leagues in the nation, New Mexico has a strong case for a No. 2 seed when the NCAA tournament bracket is revealed Sunday. Alford even went so far as to lobby for a No. 1 seed, a long shot to be sure yet not completely absurd given the Lobos 29-5 record and No. 2 RPI.
"I think we've got to be in the talks," Alford said. "I have no idea what is going to happen tonight or tomorrow. I know there's been some upsets. There's talks of teams being No. 1 seeds that haven't won their league or the league tournament. We haven't won the 10th best league, the 10th best tournament, we've won the No. 1 or No. 2 league in the country by two games. We've won the conference tournament as well. That's deserving of at least being in a lot of discussions for those seeds."
Indeed it is. And with those high seeds comes the pressure of delivering in March.