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November 28, 2012Welcome to the country's elite, Lobos.
You deserve it.
The University of New Mexico has been as lucky as it has been good in its quest to join the nation's two major men's basketball polls. As of Wednesday, the Lobos (6-0) were ranked 25th in the Associated Press Poll and 23rd in the Coaches Poll.
The wins that likely opened voters' eyes to the talented Lobos were over Connecticut and George Mason. It was an improbable last-second flurry that pushed the Lobos past the Patriots. UNM scored six unanswered points - including a 33-footer by Kendall Williams- in 12 seconds for the 70-69 win. The Lobos then were a perfect 21-of-21 from the free-throw line against UConn to capture the Paradise Jam championship.
"We found a way to win," said Lobos head coach Steve Alford after the semifinal. "We made two unbelievable plays down the stretch ... ."
UNM also found a way to beat Portland 69-54 on Sunday with Williams out of the starting lineup and sixth-man Demetrius Walker placed down in the rotation. Both were late to a team meeting and faced Alford's punishment. It slowed the offense temporarily, but it ultimately didn't stop the Lobos' progress.
It's not the big news that it used to be to see UNM in the rankings. The Lobos have been in the polls three of the previous four seasons. They peaked in 2009-10 at No. 8 in the AP. Last season UNM was ranked three different times, rising to 18th and finishing as the only team in the Mountain or Pacific time zones to be ranked.
The Lobos went nearly a full decade from 1999-2009 without being ranked among the country's best, so they appreciate the distinction. They also have to keep winning to keep it. They beat Mercer (3-4) on Wednesday, and face Indiana State (4-1) next. Voters will want to see wins against these underdogs.
UNM also has all-too-familiar company in the polls. San Diego State (No. 23/21) and UNLV (No. 24/20). Those are also the teams that will likely challenge the Lobos for the Mountain West Championship.
UNM knows that staying in the polls increases its chances of being selected as an at-large team in the NCAA tournament. Almost never is a top 25 team overlooked for tournament selection. It takes some pressure off the Lobos to win the league and increases the chances of them getting a beneficial seed in the NCAA.
By all accounts it's been a perfect beginning for UNM. The Lobos have proven they can win with a guard-heavy lineup and just two conventional post players. They have proven they can execute late in games with their veteran players, and put teams away from the foul line. They have played inspired defense and limited their own turnovers.
It's early, but the Lobos already have the look of a polished group.
The voters have noticed.
New Mexico NEWS