New Mexico just might have a chance to get in the conversation Friday night.
Well, at least coach Steve Alford thinks his team should if it can knock off BYU for the third time this season in Friday night's Mountain West tournament semifinals.
Though it's still a very outside possibility that the Lobos (21-11) can make themselves a legitimate at-large candidate following two months of bubble irrelevance, tripping up the already shaky Cougars could do wonders for an RPI that needs the help in a bad way.
Worst case scenario for UNM is that, with another win over BYU, the Lobos can be on the NCAA tourney's doorstep anyway with a berth in Saturday's title game in Las Vegas.
They got to the semis thanks to a gritty 67-61 victory over Colorado State at the Thomas & Mack Center on Thursday afternoon in the quarterfinals. That loss knocked the fading Rams off of the bubble for good.
Afterwards, Alford was tossed a question about whether he thought a third victory over the Cougars could get them in the picture.
"It's hard to say," he started. "We haven't watched much — Watched enough TV to see. I don't understand why some teams are in the picture. I mean, our league is ranked fourth in the country (in RPI). There are leagues behind us that supposedly are getting five and six teams in. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense when we're the fourth-ranked league in the country. We should be considered."
Well, here are the facts:
• The Lobos came into Thursday's quarterfinals with an RPI of 72 and a schedule strength of 90. And while the league's RPI is good, the Lobos were a lackluster 8-8 in MWC play.
• Beating Colorado State for a second time gave them 21 wins, which looks very good at first glance. It includes quite a few bad losses, though, such as one at Wyoming (RPI 255) and two to struggling league foe Utah (RPI 119). Losses to Dayton (RPI 79) and Northern Iowa (RPI 111) aren't awful, but look worse right now than they did at the time.
• Outside of the BYU wins — which were both quite convincing — quality wins are tough to locate. The pair against CSU are OK, and an 89-76 victory over Colorado in Las Vegas back in December looks better by the day.
• Miscellaneous: An 89-64 loss at Cal on Nov. 20 was unsightly. Cal got things figured out this season with an overhauled roster, but not until long after November … The Lobos' non-conference schedule included Longwood, Division-II Northwood, Citadel and CSU-Bakersfield … New Mexico's only games against ranked opponents were the four regular season match-ups with BYU and San Diego State.
The résumé makes UNM's shot at a second straight at-large berth look bleak no matter what happens on Friday night. Right now, it's really a shame, because the Lobos are finally playing consistently like a team that deserves to be there.
In Thursday's win, the interior duo of A.J. Hardeman and UCLA transfer Drew Gordon combined for 23 points and 22 rebounds. That strength plays right into BYU's one glaring weakness, which is a soft interior in the wake of Brandon Davies' season-ending suspension. The Cougars have looked very one-dimensional since Davies' violation of the school's honor code ended his season, and their 64-58 against lowly TCU earlier on Thursday afternoon was further proof of that.
Always one of the Mountain West's toughest players, senior guard Dairese Gary had nine points, five assists and four rebounds. He dove on the floor repeatedly and single-handedly ratcheted up the level of emotion on the floor in a heated atmosphere. Kendall Williams — the league's Freshman of the Year and Gary's eventual successor — scored 16 points.
Of the four teams remaining in the MWC tournament heading into Friday's semis — UNM, San Diego State, UNLV and BYU — the Lobos have just as good of a chance to emerge with the title as anyone else. They're that talented.
Putting it together consistently has been the problem for them this entire season, though.
"Our body of work is getting better," Alford said. "That's what you want to do in March, you want your body of work to get better. We're on a four-game winning streak. The work these guys are doing is getting better. Two weeks ago, we were 17-11. Didn't look so good. 21-11 looks better."
And 22-11 will look even better than that. But will it look good enough to change the minds of those on the selection committee?
- Steve Alford