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At the turn: Recapping the Lobos' first half of Mountain West play

Feb. 5—It ain't golf, but like an 18-hole round at your favorite course, the UNM Lobos are at the turn.

They made it through their first nine holes and the scorecard looks just fine. They even had a little time to rest (the last team in the league to get one of their two "bye" slots in the 18-game league schedule this weekend before heading out to play the much tougher final nine holes of the course).

At the midway point, the Lobos sit in a tie with San Diego State for third place in the 11-team league with a 6-3 conference record.

Ahead of the Lobos and Aztecs in the standings are Utah State and Boise State, tied for first at 7-2.

All four of the top teams in the MW standings at the midway point have beaten and lost to other teams in the top four, and all four have reason to be optimistic about being able to pull off down the stretch of the season a championship run.

But before we let all that play out, here's a look back at what got the Lobos to this point in what is one of the strongest seasons ever in the 25-year history of the Mountain West with what appears to be four (at least) to six (at most) teams making the NCAA Tournament.

UNM Lobos' first half MW recap

First, two statistical notes about where the Lobos were when league play began on Jan. 2 and where we are as this article publishes on Feb. 4:

NCAA NET ranking — Jan. 2: 36 / Feb. 4: 18KenPom.com ranking — Jan. 2: 36 / Feb. 4: 19

The recap below includes NET and KenPom rankings as they appeared the morning of each scheduled game and the morning after.

Game 1: Jan. 2 at No. 13 Colorado State

No. 13 Colorado State 76, New Mexico 68UNM 0-1KenPom before/after: 36/36NET before/after: 36/37Recap: In the first game with the Lobos really at full strength all season (they did all play in the Nov. 6 season opener, but it was clear Jaelen House was hurt and he then missed the next five games), the Lobos looked good early against the Rams. Then, thanks in part to the Lobos' recurring weakness of House getting into foul trouble, UNM went on a long scoring drought in the second half as CSU pulled away.

Game 2: Jan. 6 vs. Wyoming

New Mexico 77, Wyoming 60UNM 1-1KenPom before/after:37/40NET before/after: 35/35Recap: With Shaquille O'Neal sitting courtside and the Lobos donning yellow state flag/Zia symbol inspired jerseys, UNM had 16 steals and forced 23 Wyoming turnovers. Donovan Dent led four Lobos in double figures with 21 points.

Game 3: Jan. 9 at UNLV

UNLV 83, New Mexico 73UNM 1-2KenPom before/after: 40/46NET before/after: 35/44Recap: UNLV's Kalib Boone scored 29 points, mostly inside, his twin brother Keylan Boone added 17, including five 3-pointers, and the Lobos' defense looked little like its normal self. UNM also struggled for the third consecutive game in the minutes after halftime.

Game 4: Jan. 13 vs. No. 19 San Diego State

New Mexico 88, No. 19 San Diego State 70UNM 2-2KenPom before/after: 43/39NET before/after: 41/36Recap: Feeding off a sold-out Pit crowd and a nationally televised audience watching on CBS, the Lobos turned a 12-point first-half deficit into a monstrous statement win over No. 19 San Diego State — the defending Mountain West champion and national runner-up — to claim their first Quad 1 victory of the season. Could this be the start of a good run for the Lobos?

Game 5: Jan. 16 vs. No. 16 Utah State

New Mexico 99, No. 16 Utah State 86UNM 3-2KenPom before/after: 38/32NET before/after: 36/28Recap: Lobo big man Nelly Junior Joseph dominated with a season-high 26 points on 11-of-12 shooting, eight rebounds, five blocked shots and three steals. The Lobos had 21 assists and six players scored in double figures, the first time that happened at UNM since 2019.

Game 6: Jan. 20 at Air Force

New Mexico 85, Air Force 66UNM 4-2KenPom before/after: 29/28NET before/after: 27/25Recap: Lobo freshman JT Toppin went for 25 points and 13 rebounds while the Lobos scored 18 points in transition in the first half, setting the tone for the win. UNM shot 54.7% from the field and outscored AFA 54-32 in the paint.

Game 7: Jan. 24 at San Jose State

No. 25 New Mexico 95, San Jose State 75UNM 5-2KenPom before/after: 28/24NET before/after: 22/19Recap: Five starters in double figures, another night of tenacious defense and a fourth-consecutive double-digit Mountain West victory for the 25th-ranked Lobos. House had 18 points and sophomore Donovan Dent added 17 points, six assists, three steals and no turnovers.

Game 8: Jan. 28 vs. Nevada

No. 25 New Mexico 89, Nevada 55UNM 6-2KenPom before/after: 24/19NET before/after: 20/15Recap: The nine-game losing streak to Nevada and an 0-8 record against former Lobos head coach Steve Alford came to an end in emphatic fashion. Jaelen House had 21 points, six assists and six steals as five Lobos scored in double figures while the defense prevented any Nevada players from reaching double figures.

Game 9: Jan. 31 vs. Boise State

Boise State 86, No. 19 New Mexico 78UNM 6-3KenPom before/after: 19/20NET before/after: 16/19Recap: The Lobos couldn't force turnovers, or score much in transition, for the first time in six games and Boise State's Max Rice ended a season-long shooting slump by hitting seven 3-pointers and scoring a career-high 35 points to beat the Lobos and end their five-game win streak that had all been by double figures. House and Jamal Mashburn Jr. combined to miss 22 shots and the loss squandered a career-best 31 point scoring night by Donovan Dent.

What's ahead?

The Lobos do have the toughest Mountain West schedule ahead.

They have four home games and five road games, starting with what statistically is the easiest on Tuesday night in Laramie. And if playing Wyoming in Laramie is the easiest of your five remaining road games, good luck.

But it isn't as though any other Mountain West team has exactly proven to be road warriors to date, either, with maybe the exception of Boise State, but the Broncos have also already given two back with a pair of home losses in league play.

So, for now, it's still very much anyone's league title to take.

UNBALANCED SCHEDULE: The league's unbalanced 18-game league schedule means UNM has seen the last of San Jose State, at least in the regular season (no Spartans in the Pit this season) and won't travel to Fresno State (the Bulldogs do come to the Pit on Feb. 17).

Here's the spin on that. For the league title race, where it comes down to your league record, missing two games apiece with two of the teams at the bottom of the standings hurts the Lobos. No win is guaranteed, but facts are facts. The Lobos miss two good opportunities at adding two wins in the standings.

On the other hand, the Lobos' biggest concern at this point in terms of the program's long-awaited return to the NCAA Tournament is quality wins. More specifically, getting Quad 1 and Quad 2 games (those are determined by a team's NET ranking).

Neither San Jose State nor Fresno State, on the road or in the Pit, would really do anything to help get the Lobos in the NCAA Tournament, even with big wins. It might help the computer metrics, but the Lobos aren't lacking in the slightest in computer metrics rankings right now (in fact, they are No. 1 or 2 in the league in all computer metrics the NCAA Selection Committee uses).

So, the Lobos will instead "miss" two games against teams that would likely be wins, but "gain" two opportunities at games that could actually get them in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since St. Louis in 2014.

2ND HALF SCHEDULE: So, what's left? Here you go (all times listed here are MT):

Tuesday at Wyoming, 6:30 p.m., TheMW.com (online)Feb 10 vs. UNLV (the Pit), 6 p.m., CBS Sports NetworkFeb. 13 at Nevada, 9 p.m., CBS Sports NetworkFeb. 16 at San Diego State, 8 p.m., FS1Feb. 21 vs. Colorado State (the Pit), 8 p.m., CBS Sports NetworkFeb. 24 vs. Air Force, 2 p.m., CBS Sports NetworkMarch 2 at Boise State, 6 p.m., CBS Sports NetworkMarch 6 vs. Fresno State (the Pit), 8:30 p.m., FS1March 9 at Utah State, 6:30 p.m. CBS Sports NetworkMarch 13-16, Las Vegas, Nev. (Thomas & Mack Center)