Lobos still nationally ranked despite last week's loss

Feb. 5—ALBUQUERQUE — For the first time in a decade, the University of New Mexico men's basketball team finds itself in the weekly Top 25 for a third straight week.

Last week's home loss to Boise State wasn't enough to dissuade voters in The Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls to drop the Lobos from the rankings. Both polls were released Monday morning ahead of this week's games.

UNM (18-4 overall, 6-3 Mountain West) slid six spots to No. 25 in the media poll and five spots to No. 25 in the coaches' poll.

Lobos coach Richard Pitino shrugged it off during a Monday morning press conference that took place at the same time the polls were coming out. When told about it he playfully dropped both palms flat on the table in front of him as he sighed, then lifted a hand to his chest as he tilted back in his seat saying, "Whew, thank God, yes. Thank God."

It's the second straight year he's had the Lobos in the Top 25. They're 5-4 in games where they've been ranked.

"The rankings, as I've said before, I don't want to totally dismiss them because I think it's great exposure for our program," he said. "You're recognized on a national level, which is great. The players, I think, probably care about it, but we have — there's been such an increase in advance metrics and kind of knowing what's going into this process. You know, we're 18 in the NET. That, to me, is way more valuable than what we are ranked."

The NCAA Tournament selection committee uses the NET Rankings to select and ultimately seed its 68-team postseason tournament. The Lobos sit at No. 18 entering Monday night's games, the highest of any team in the Mountain West and in front of national brands like Duke (19), San Diego State (20), Michigan State (22), Kentucky (26) and Gonzaga (27).

New Mexico is No. 19 in the KenPom Ratings, which measures teams based on a number of factors such as offensive and defensive efficiency, strength of schedule and opponents' strength of schedule.

The Lobos are one of three teams from the Mountain West in the two Top 25 polls, joining Utah State (22 in the AP, 21 in the coaches' poll) and San Diego State (24/24). It's the third time this season three MWC teams have been ranked at the same time.

Boise State and Colorado State received votes in both tabulations.

New Mexico visits Wyoming (12-10, 5-4) in Laramie on Tuesday night. The two met one month ago in The Pit, a 77-60 win for UNM in which Donovan Dent scored 21 points.

The Lobos play five of their final nine regular season games on the road. Currently in a tie for third in the Mountain West with San Diego State, they have three of those games with the teams crowded around them atop the standings; the Aztecs, Boise State and Utah State.

Each of those are potential quad-1 wins, which would significantly boost their ranking in the NET. Road wins against top-tier teams are the most valuable asset in the NET Rankings.

The Lobos head into the stretch run with the national spotlight increasingly cast upon them. Moments before he met with the local media on Monday morning, Pitino appeared on CBS Sports analyst Jon Rothstein's weekly podcast to discuss, among other things, how Rothstein believes UNM can potentially be the top non-power team in the country.

Also Monday, The Athletic published a feature-length story about the Lobos titled, "Six days on the bubble with America's most eclectic team." The sports media giant recently dispatched a writer to go behind the scenes of Pitino's program, interviewing players during the week UNM knocked off nationally ranked San Diego State and Utah State in back-to-back games at home.

All of that attention in the six days between the team's only loss in The Pit and Tuesday's trip to Laramie. It's a lot to take in, Pitino admitted.

He said he gave his players some time off after the Boise State game, but admitted there are times when a break isn't necessarily needed.

"Sometimes it's not great," he said. "Sometimes you want to get back right away and play when you lose. You know, I like those breaks after wins."

One thing it did do was give Pitino time evaluate the film from the Boise State loss. The Broncos caught UNM off guard by having 6-foot-8 forward Tyson Degenhart routinely bring the ball upcourt, thereby eliminating the Lobos' ability to use their guards to apply pressure from one end to the other.

Wyoming did something similar in their Jan. 6 loss in The Pit when Cowboys 6-9 forward Mason Walters spent time handling the ball in the second half.

Pitino said having a player like all-conference guard Jaelen House at his disposal allows him the freedom to unleash House's aggressive on-ball defense and utilize the full-court press.

"If we have an opportunity to do it, let's be aggressive and be on the attack," Pitino said. "We're really good when we're doing it, but good teams win a variety of ways and I think we're a good team."


Just rewards: Pitino announced Monday that junior forward Deraje Agbaosi, one of two walk-ons on the roster to start this season, has been awarded a scholarship for the remainder of the 2023-24 campaign.

Agbaosi is in his first season with the Lobos, sitting out the year as a redshirt. A 6-foot-7 forward from Union, N.J., he played his first two seasons at North Alabama where he appeared in 33 games, averaging 1.8 points and 2.3 rebounds.

Pitino made the announcement to the team during a Sunday afternoon practice in The Pit.

"I was excited for him," said teammate Jermarl Baker Jr. "That's my guy."

Not a night owl: Pitino echoed the sentiment of many a Lobos fan when he said he's not too fond of all the late-night tipoff times his team has had during conference play.

The majority of games have started at 8 p.m. or later, including last week's 8:45 start against Boise State. The Lobos also have four more regular season games that start no earlier than 8.

"I hate everything about them so much, they are the bane of my existence," Pitino said. "I despise them so much. But I understand there's nothing any of us can do, but it drives me insane."

You can thank the MWC's multimedia rights agreement with FOX and CBS Sports for that. The networks dictate start times for games they televise, often pushing Mountain West games to the end of the night to accommodate additional games in the Midwest and East Coast.

Tuesday's game was not picked up by either network and will be streamed live by the Mountain West Network.

"Phenomenal," Pitino said. "I may wear shorts, sandals. Love it."