New Mexico's surprising spiral from at-large status continues

LAS VEGAS -- New Mexico senior guard Dairese Gary was a part of Mountain West Conference regular season championship teams each of the last two seasons.

Admitting that he probably won't be part of a third before his college career is done was tough to accept following Saturday's wild, mistake-ridden 63-62 loss at UNLV, which dropped the Lobos to 1-4 in the league.

"It's tough trying to come from a deficit like that, especially in a league like ours, with a lot of good teams," he said. "Right now, I don't know if we're even thinking about a conference title anymore."

He's probably right, as San Diego State and BYU continue to blitz through their respective league schedules still without a loss.

The bigger question on everyone's mind is: Will the Lobos even make it back to the NCAA tournament after returning three starters and several more key pieces from a team that was a 3-seed last March?

"I'm sure that's in a lot of people's minds, especially mine, being a senior," Gary continued. "I want the season to go on as long as possible, but you can't think that far ahead or you will lose and go down the wrong path."

The problem for fourth-year coach Steve Alford and his club, though, is that they've already been down the wrong path for about a month now.

Since a 10-1 start, the Lobos have gone 3-6, and have two bad road losses in MWC play already, falling on a buzzer-beater at Wyoming and by 10 on Wednesday night at Utah. They're 13-7 overall with the only victories coming close to qualifying right now as 'good wins' being at Colorado and home over Colorado State.

In other words, the résumé looks like swiss cheese at the moment.

Things might only get worse for New Mexico, who still has to face BYU twice and play road games at CSU and SDSU.

So what's behind this collapse? Lets take a closer look …

• The Lobos returned a lot this season, but did lose two of its three key pieces from last year's squad in MWC Player of the Year Darington Hobson (early NBA draft entry) and 6-foot-6 3-point gunner/über-leader/glue guy Roman Martinez.

• UNM's top returner — Gary — is playing hurt, but that's been the case for the bulk of his career in Albuquerque. The added problem this season has been inconsistency for the Indiana-bred, hand-picked point guard Alford brought in before his first season at UNM. Still the MWC's best lead guard not named Jimmer Fredette is averaging a career-worst 2.7 turnovers per game, including a couple of big ones in the second half against UNLV.

• It's tough to tell if there are chemistry issues, but UCLA transfer Drew Gordon hasn't quite been the difference-maker many around the league thought he would be in terms of wins. He's producing and is the best non-Aztec big man in the conference, but since he became eligible after the fall semester, the Lobos are now 5-6.

New Mexico does have one advantage, if you can believe that, moving forward, and that's its home venue — The Pit.

In a league with many intimidating gyms for visitors to visit, New Mexico owns the toughest. Still, winning out at home would only put the Lobos at 18 wins entering the conference tournament. They're 0-3 so far on the road in the league, and might have a tough time winning more than one or two of their remaining away games.

That said, without either winning the MWC tourney in Las Vegas or an out-of-nowhere hot streak through the rest of the regular season slate, Gary's strong UNM career could have an unfortunate ending in the NIT.

Ryan Greene covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for the Las Vegas Sun. Follow him on Twitter.

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