Painting a positive face on being in the NIT, New Mexico coach Steve Alford said Sunday night that he is just glad his Lobos are in a postseason tournament.
UNM plays UTEP Tuesday night in The Pit.
"Making the postseason is hard,'' Alford said. "We very much appreciate the NIT. I think our guys are excited about it.''
The Lobos are 21-12 overall and were not mentioned even as a longshot for the NCAA tournament. The Lobos lost to BYU Friday night in the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference tournament.
UTEP is 25-9 and lost to Memphis in the championship game of the Conference USA tournament in El Paso on Saturday. Both teams swept New Mexico State, Texas Tech and Air Force in common. The only difference is BYU, which the Lobos beat twice before losing to the Cougars Saturday while the Miners lost their only game against BYU 89-68.
The last time UNM lost a non-conference game in the Pit, it was against UTEP in 2009.
"It is a rivalry that is long-standing,'' Alford noted. "The last time they made a trip to The Pit, they won. They know what it is like.''
The Lobos will be without their only senior. Guard Dairese Gary went down with a knee injury early in the second half of Friday's game.
"He's got a torn ACL,'' Alford said. "He's done for the year. He'll be out quite some time. Our guys want to play a little bit of this game for Dairese.''
So how do the Lobos replace the guy who has been the heart of the team?
"Dairese is not going to be replaced this last in the season in March. The guys just need to step up their roles," Alford said.
UTEP is led by guard Randy Culpepper, who is averaging 19.1 points a game. Freshman Kendall Williams might get the assignment of covering Culpepper.
"Kendall just needs to be Kendall,'' Alford explained.
This will be UNM's only home game in the NIT. The Lobos are seeded fourth and would play at Alabama in the second round, if the Crimson Tide can beat Coastal Carolina Tuesday. Even if the Lobos earned another home game, The Pit is not available because of the NCAA women's tournament this weekend and pro rodeo next week.