There is a sobering reality settling over Loboland. It is as unwelcome as dirty snow.
The University of New Mexico men's basketball team regrouped on Thursday in the midst of a four-game season-sinking losing streak. The skid has put many of UNM's season-long goals out of reach. Barring a touched-by-an-angel championship run through the Mountain West Conference tournament, the Lobos will not return to the NCAA tournament.
The regular-season MWC championship is long gone. Heck, it will be a struggle for them just to finish 8-8 in the league. The Lobos have fallen short of their own expectations after winning back-to-back regular-season league titles.
UNM (17-11 overall, 5-8 MWC) had a chance to get a little something going at home on Wednesday night against a good UNLV team. The Lobos overcame a 15-point deficit to light a fire under the 15,000-plus in The Pit. UNM, under a shaky performance eventually forced overtime, then fell flat, losing 77-74. Most of the blame can be placed on a strength of the team, especially at home: foul shooting.
The Lobos got to the line 37 times in the game, but dropped just 23 shots. And they converted a mediocre 17 of 26 in the second half and overtime. They were 1 of 6 from the field in OT, while UNLV went 4 of 6 to take the game away. The performance wasted a career-high 26 points from senior point guard Dairese Gary and a status quo double-double from junior forward Drew Gordon (15 points, 14 rebounds).
All this begs the question, what now? The most obvious answer is that UNM must learn to move on without the standout Gary. Jamal Fenton could be the player that replaces him. Kendall Williams could also handle point guard duty. There might be a move for an outside player. It will be an issue to be worked out in the offseason. Regardless, it is a large pair of Nikes to fill. Gary has been a fixture and will go down as one of the better PGs to ever wear a Lobos uniform.
The other pressing issue is one that has partly worked itself out in UNM's favor. A lot of the conference got better while UNM was getting worse. BYU and San Diego State have been in the national rankings all year. The Aztecs are currently ranked sixth in the Associated Press poll while the Cougars are seventh. UNLV has remained solid and Colorado State has improved. Utah is down a bit, but better than UNM. But with conference shuffling being a reality these days, BYU is gone to the West Coast Conference for 2011-12. Utah has accepted membership in the Pac-10 after next season. TCU is fleeing to the Big East for 2012-13. Boise State has accepted membership in the MWC for 2011-12, but the Broncos are not a formidable team most years.
The league will change and the Lobos could benefit. Head coach Steve Alford has signed an extension through 2020 and if he continues to bring in players of Gordon's caliber, UNM could be making a return to the NCAA tourney sooner rather than later.
When a team faces circumstances like UNM currently does, the future becomes much more important and pleasant than the present.