The University of New Mexico Lobos received a number 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. Selection Sunday was a huge occasion in Albuquerque this year, asthousands of people flocked to the Pit to watch the Lobos receive their placement in the Big Dance. The Lobos were rewarded with a ranking of 10th in first AP poll of the postseason. As a top 16 tourney team, the Lobos were placed in the West division of the NCAA, meaning they will play the vast majority of their early games (assuming they continue to win) near home.
The Lobos will play their first game against 14th-seeded Harvard on Thursday, March 21 in Salt Lake City. The game will be nationally broadcast on TNT, and regional preferences will almost assuredly guarantee that New Mexicans will see the majority of the game, unless something extremely dramatic happens in one of the other games scheduled around 7:50 PM MST.
With the disparity in seedings and overall records for the year, Lobo fans are expecting a big victory. If UNM does win on Thursday, they'll play again on Saturday, again in Salt Lake City, against either the sixth-seeded Arizona Wildcats or the eleventh-seeded Belmont Bruins.
A win over either of those teams would send UNM back to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1974, the first time the NCAA Tournament was strictly a Division I affair, but also a time when the post-season only took in 25 teams. The ESPN preview of the West bracket, written by Robbi Pickeral, says the team is ready. The fans who celebrated on Sunday seem to believe so. But with a run into the Sweet Sixteen, the path gets significantly more difficult.
If the seeding holds up, UNM will match up with Ohio State University in the Sweet Sixteen on March 28 in Los Angeles. OSU is a powerhouse that many feel could have qualified for a number 1 seed. The game is never easy, of course, but this match-up might prove difficult for the Cherry and Silver squad. However, the Lobos aren't without their believers. Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis says the Lobos will not only defeat OSU, but will be carried into the Final Four.
A victory in the quarterfinals would take UNM—again, if the seeding all holds up and the teams that are supposed to win do so—against the little mid-major that could, Gonzaga. A constant presence in the NCAA Tournament for the last 15 years, Gonzaga's been rewarded for its consistent non-conference play, and the winning they did along with that schedule this year, with a number 1 seed in the West. An Elite Eight appearance would match Gonzaga's best-ever Big Dance record, but it'd be a new one for the Lobos. Both teams, then, will have plenty to fight for, if the match up arises, in order to make the Final Four in Atlanta.
With five teams from the Mountain West conference in to the NCAA Tournament, UNM doesn't have to go to the trouble of scheduling so many non-conference games to toughen up their schedule. In fact, UNM had the second most difficult schedule strength in the nation. And it's clear that the MWC is holding its own during the season. Now is the time, however, for the real stars to shine. If any MWC teams can make deep runs in the postseason, it's good for the whole league. And Burqueños are hoping that it'll be their beloved Lobos that get the chance to shine the brightest, with a possible trip to Atlanta at the end.