It goes against popular perception, but the Lobos men's basketball team is entering a dubious time of year.
For all of its regular-season success in the Mountain West Conference, particularly under Steve Alford, UNM is not a great tournament performer.
The Lobos enter this year's MWC Championship as a two-seed, facing off against No. 7 Air Force today. The Lobos shared the regular season title with San Diego State. It is UNM's 12th appearance as a founding school in the league, but the Lobos are just 7-11 in championship play with their only title coming in 2005. UNM advanced to the semifinal round last season before losing to BYU and falling to the NIT.
"The league race is something that is really special," Alford said after the team's regular season finale. "It takes on a whole different meaning when you play everyone over two and a half months. At the tourney, it's who gets hot. The regular season is about a body of work."
UNM (24-6) seems to be solidly in the NCAA tournament and probably does not need the MWC's automatic bid. The Lobos are projected as an eight- or a nine-seed in most mock brackets. They are 33rd in the Ratings Percentage Index and have a 4-3 record against the RPI top 50. The team's resume also includes a week in the top 25 polls.
A couple wins in the league tournament would only strengthen the Lobos' position, and a loss to Air Force could be a ticket to a 12-seed and a very difficult first-round matchup. It's a good thing UNM doesn't lose to the Falcons. The Lobos are 1-0 in tournament play against them and seem to beat them handily regardless of the circumstances.
The two-seed has fared well in the championship. It is 22-6 overall and has won the title all five times it has advanced to that point. SDSU is the top seed and has won the last two MWC tournament crowns, giving it four to lead the league.
Assuming UNM advances, it would face Wyoming or UNLV in a semifinal. That is not necessarily good news. The Lobos are 0-3 against the Rebels in the tournament and 0-1 against the Cowboys.
The Lobos have played well heading into the tournament, aside from a couple road losses that ultimately cost them their spot in the polls. UNM won seven games in a row from Jan. 25 to Feb. 21. They are 2-2 in their last four, but seem to be in sync.
Alford is correct that it is indeed the hot team that advances in March. The Lobos have shown they can win tests of endurance. They now need to prove they can win consistently in single-elimination.