On Monday, the AP released their latest rankings for the NCAA Division I men's college basketball teams and the University of New Mexico's Lobos moved up to number 14. Although the Lobos have been ranked higher (the 2009-2010 team hit number 8), this week's movement represents significant gains for a team that's made no bones over their serious goals. Since head coach Steve Alford took over the program in 2007, his squads have made some kind of post-season each year. While the NIT appearances in his first two seasons may have disappointed some, it was clear in 2010 that the incremental progress meant something. The Lobos crashed in the second round of the NCAA Tournament as a (possibly over-seeded) 3-seed, which had come about because of the only 30-win season in New Mexico's history. Their seeding meant a match up against Montana in the first round, but an upset by Washington in the second.
The next season began with high expectations, but failed during that season to live up to most of them. Finishing the year 22-13, the Lobos headed back to the NIT. However, in the wake of the super-successful previous season, coach Alford and the University signed a new contract, locking Alford up until 2020 and it would soon be proved that both sides were serious about keeping the forward momentum.
Last year, the Lobos finished with a record of 28-7, going 10-4 in Mountain West Conference play. They won the MWC Tournament and earned a 5-seed with their automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. They lost again in the second round eventual Final Four team Louisville.
So, with momentum and history on our side, the Lobos now gear up for their final four games of the regular season. San Diego State visits the Pit tonight, and though the Aztecs are only the fourth place team in the Mountain West Conference, they are one of only two in-conference teams to have beaten the Lobos (the other being UNLV). SDSU will come to the Pit looking to knock off a quality opponent, hoping to boost their resume for the Big Dance in March. After SDSU's visit, the Lobos have only one home game left—Wyoming will come to play on Saturday. The Lobos then finish up their schedule on the road at Nevada on March 6 and at Air Force on March 9. The Mountain West Tournament will be held in Las Vegas March 12-15.
The biggest thing for these Lobos at this point is to continue their impressive streak. Winning in Fort Collins against top-25 ranked Colorado State in an impressive fashion last Saturday was a great boost for the team's RPI, which is the single biggest determining factor in figuring out seeding for the NCAA Tournament. Losing to any of our remaining opponents has the potential to crash that rating. Winning the regular season outright and taking that momentum through the MWC Tournament would obviously be ideal. While everyone loves to be nationally ranked during the season, there's a clear preference to be one of the last teams standing, regardless of ranks. These Lobos have shown they've got a strong will to win. They've got four conference games and a conference tournament to show that it has not been a fluke.