The University of New Mexico men's basketball team is where it most wants to be. As in, in control of its own destiny.
It can wipe away all of the blemishes of a sputtering season with just three little wins in the Mountain West Conference tourney, which starts for UNM today at 3:30 p.m. versus Colorado State. The Lobos (20-11) drew the fifth seed after finishing 8-8 in the league.
UNM has been streaking around since mid-January. It has had losing streaks of three and four games and winning streaks of four and three games. Fortunately for the faithful, the Lobos are currently on a three-game upswing.
The difference between UNM and CSU is better measured in fractions. To say one team is wholly better at this point is a stretch, at least in head-to-head competition. The Lobos beat the Rams 68-61 in Albuquerque then lost 68-62 in Ft. Collins. UNM got to the foul line and converted (20-for-25) in The Pit and shot 42 percent from the floor. The Lobos could not repeat the performance a second time, getting to the line just nine times while converting eight on the road. The Lobos were also inept from deep. The threw up 25 3-pointers and scored on six. Phillip McDonald and Dairese Gary were a combined 0-for-11, and that's how games are lost.
Since the tournament is in fabulous Las Vegas, Nev., it should be noted that people in the know have the spread at 3 in favor of UNM even though CSU is a four-seed.
For the Lobos it should be simple. They are at their best when they attack the basket and create the open shot. Getting to the free-throw line is crucial. Forward Drew Gordon, a double-double waiting to happen, has had 15 and 12 points in two meetings versus CSU and he pulled down 16 rebounds in the home game. If Gordon gets help scoring, specifically from Gary and McDonald, it will open up a lot of options for UNM. The Lobos will need to hit a few jumpers to create driving lanes, too. CSU will want to make the Lobos a one-dimensional perimeter team like it did in Ft. Collins.
UNM has its opportunity. The so-called third season is here. The only way the Lobos are going to make it to the NCAA tournament is by winning their next three and claiming the league's automatic bid. This part of the season has nicknames like "Madness" and "Mayhem." It is when anything can happen and hope springs eternal. It's a time when whole season's can be salvaged with a hot streak.