Alford makes winning fashionable

LAS VEGAS -- As if building a top 25 basketball program wasn't enough, Steve Alford has found another way to put his stamp on the University of New Mexico.


Each time his team wins any sort of championship, the Lobos coach climbs a ladder, snips away the final strands of the net and then wears it like a necklace to his postgame news conference. The look has become hip around New Mexico supporters, many of whom show up at Lobos games sporting cotton around the collar.

"Fans like it," Alford said. "I just try to do a lot of things our fans like because we've got the best fans in the country."

Those fans were certainly cheering Alford on Saturday as he sliced away the net at the Thomas & Mack Center. Within seconds of the final horn in New Mexico's 63-56 victory over UNLV, hundreds of fans stormed the court to revel in the Lobos' Mountain West Conference tournament title.

The championship was hardly the first for Alford at New Mexico, where he has won four Mountain West regular-season trophies in six seasons along with three conference tournament crowns.

This one, though, may have felt a bit more special than the others. Winning the Mountain West is always tough, but doing it in a season when the league spent virtually every week ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the RPI makes the accomplishment even more meaningful.

"We weren't picked to win this league at all," Alford said. "We were picked anywhere from third to fifth. We dominated the league. We won it by two games.

"We don't know what our [NCAA tournament] seed is going to be. But we know we're deserving of a very good seed."

A possible No. 1 seed, perhaps?

"I think we've at least got to be in the talks," Alford said.

No one is projecting New Mexico as a potential No. 1 seed, but after Saturday it seems obvious the Lobos should be in the mix for a No. 2.

New Mexico is ranked No. 2 in the RPI, and its strength of schedule is No. 3. The 15th-ranked Lobos are 29-5 overall and tout 10 wins against the RPI top 50. Alford's team also boasts victories in 10 of its last 11 games.

During a week when so many of the projected high seeds lost (Duke, Indiana, Georgetown), New Mexico remained hot.

"We'll put our starting five up against anybody," Alford said.

In this season of parity, there's no reason New Mexico can't make a deep NCAA tournament run. The Lobos are physical defenders -- they rarely allowed paint touches while holding UNLV to 33.9 percent shooting Saturday -- and Tony Snell may be the most talented player in the MWC not named Anthony Bennett.

New Mexico has been to the Big Dance just three times since 2000 and hasn't been to the Sweet 16 since 1974.

"We don't have our mind set on the Sweet 16," Alford said. "We have our mind set on trying to advance in this tournament. If we get bounced in game one or game four, this season is still a huge success.

"These guys were driven to get into the tournament and make some noise. Hopefully that's what we do. But if not, then it just wasn't meant to be. It's not going to change the season."

A Sweet 16 appearance -- or, heck, even a berth in the Final Four -- will hardly seem far-fetched if the Lobos perform like they did against UNLV Saturday. In a deafening venue filled with a 50-50 split of fans from both schools, New Mexico used some pesky second-half defense to get by a Runnin' Rebels team it had lost to in the same arena back on Feb. 9.

New Mexico led 34-32 at intermission before putting together a second-half run that put the game away. Snell had 21 points and Kendall Williams added 12 for the Lobos, who played an unselfish brand of basketball with 16 assists on 23 baskets.

Snell accounted for all of his team's points during a 10-2 run that ended with New Mexico leading 56-47 with about 3 minutes remaining. UNLV made just one basket during a nearly 10-minute span in the second half.

UNLV hung around and pulled within three, 56-53, on a 3-pointer from Bryce Dejean-Jones. But Snell answered with a 3 on the Lobos' next possession that sealed the Runnin' Rebels' fate.

"We've got a lot of momentum right now," Snell said. " We're going to set our sights high. I don't see any reason we can't go in there and win the whole thing."

Neither does Alford, who would like nothing more than to drape another net around his neck.