New Mexico cashes in with MWC title

New Mexico’s fans have long treated the Lobos basketball program as the professional sports team the state does not have.

They pack the Pit. They talk about UNM all year long. They paint the town red.

And with that comes high expectations.

But the Lobos haven’t always had to deal with the pressure from the conference or outside the region -- until this season.

New Mexico was the preseason favorite to win the Mountain West.

The Lobos did, sharing the regular-season crown with San Diego State. SDSU was the top seed in the MWC tournament, but UNM won by beating host UNLV on Friday, then San Diego State on Saturday to cap off the title run.

The state of New Mexico follows this team like the Commonwealth shadows Kentucky. But the Wildcats fans usually have their expectations met. That’s not the case from Albuquerque to Alamogordo and all points in between.

“This one is special because we were expected to do it and we did it,’’ said New Mexico coach Steve Alford by phone from Las Vegas after the Lobos’ 68-59 victory over the Aztecs at the Thomas & Mack Center. “We won both the league and the conference tournament. We were picked to win it so there was a lot of pressure all year on these guys.’’

The Lobos were trying to figure themselves out to start the season without a four-year starting point guard in Dairese Gary. That somewhat accounted for a disheartening home loss to rival New Mexico State on Nov. 16, then a befuddling overtime loss to Santa Clara eight days later in the first round of the 76 Classic in Anaheim, Calif.

The Lobos won their next two games and didn’t lose again until hosting San Diego State on Jan. 18.

“It just took us a while,’’ Alford said. “San Diego State and UNLV both had good nonconference wins so they got all the attention early.’’

The Lobos were flying under the radar, yet were racking up wins and split the season series with UNLV and SDSU. They ran out of gas and into two hot home teams in Colorado State and TCU two weeks ago. But that didn’t affect this team, which has now won five straight.

The diversity of scoring with Drew Gordon, Kendall Williams and Tony Snell, the addition of Hugh Greenwood as a steading force at the point, and a coaching staff that is so secure now in this job has led to a program that is winning consistently.

Alford has now reached the NCAA tournament twice in the past three seasons. The Lobos were a No. 3 seed two years ago, beating Montana before losing to Washington.

The expectation will be on the Lobos to advance at least one round next week. Alford is hoping that the Lobos have earned the right to stay out west. New Mexico can’t play in Albuquerque, since it is the host. But UNM could play in Portland. The West regional is in Phoenix if the Lobos were to win two games.

“We’re real anxious to see where we’ll be,’’ Alford said. “We’ve got really good shooting, we’re guarding the ball and we play nine or 10 people. But it will all come down to matchups.’’

Alford said he couldn’t get over how many Lobos fans turned out in Las Vegas. He expects a similar surge on the road in the NCAA tournament.

Dave Bliss had moderate conference tournament success toward the end of his tenure at UNM. Fran Fraschilla and Ritchie McKay weren’t there long enough to establish a tradition. But Alford has now done something the others did not, and that’s get in the NCAAs twice in three years.

“It’s been unbelievable,’’ said Alford, who previously coached Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State) and Iowa to the NCAA tournament. “I think we’ll have a couple thousand people waiting for us at the airport Sunday. We’ve got such a passionate fan base. We’ve put a good product on the floor. We’ve now had a three-week period where we’ve shot it well and we’ve guarded. Hopefully we can keep doing that and if we do we have a chance to be successful.’’