Mountain West Tournament: Why New Mexico Can Win It All (What Could Go Wrong?)
New Mexico tries its luck as the seventh seed.
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The Lobos have one more chance to put it together.
With the Mountain West Tournament starting on Wednesday, fans have one last hope that, independent of what happened through the conference and non-conference seasons, their team can make the NCAA Tournament.
If you’re a fan of Nevada or Utah State, you can rest easy with fair (Utah State) to complete certainty (Nevada) that you’re team will be dancing, only cheering for higher seeding in the NCAA Tournament by winning the conference tournament.
But for the rest of the Mountain West, including New Mexico, teams have only remote aspirations of playing as one of the lower seeded teams in the NCAA tournament.
It’s certainly not likely, but it is possible for New Mexico, right?
You know, possible for that team that beat Nevada by 27 points, or the one that beat fourth place San Diego State by 13 points, or maybe even for the one that lost at home to Utah State by 2 points on a last second basket after a bad call by officials.
But for the team that lost to both San José State and Wyoming, it will likely prove to be a mountain too high to climb.
But for once this season, there have been a few consistent improvements for New Mexico, which looked stagnant and without improvement for much of the season, and it is because of these improvement that the Lobos will have a chance to make a run for the Mountain West Conference Tournament crown starting Wednesday.
First, the Lobos have quietly made an identity of rebounding in their last four games in which they have out-rebounded opponents by an average margin of +13.75 rebounds. They are also averaging a solid 16.75 offensive rebounds per game, making up for a recent lull in offensive efficiency (New Mexico is shooting an average of 42.02% from the field in their last four outings and just 33.2% from three). While the result of their last four games is just 2-2 despite the gaudy rebounding margins, the Lobos have been able to do something lately that they hadn’t done all year: play a close game.
Crucial to the rebounding success has been the size of the team, which had often been a weakness for the Lobos this season for a variety of reasons. But recently, it has emerged as a strength that New Mexico has been trying to use to its advantage.
At the core of the size advantage and emergence of rebounding for his team is Carlton Bragg, who has been putting up monster rebounding numbers for the last four games and is averaging a double-double in that span (and nearly a double-double on the season at 10.9 points per game and 9.3 rebounds per game). In his last four games, Bragg is averaging 14.75 points and 14.75 rebounds per game, and tallied 20 rebounds in the Lobos’ loss to Wyoming on Saturday.
The success inside, which has come from a variety of sources such as Corey Manigault and Vance Jackson, has meant less reliance on three pointers for the Lobos as well, which is good considering their below-average three point percentage in their last four games.
But the inside-out style, implemented midway through the season, has helped the Lobos secure more opportunities at open threes, despite the fact that they aren’t necessarily falling. Still, if the threes do start falling, the inside-out game can spread the floor enough for Bragg, Manigault, Jackson and the rest of the team to continue doing damage inside the paint.
But what of the tournament itself? What does the Lobos’ side of the bracket look like?
Simply put the path won’t be easy, but there are a few positives to take away.
For one, they are on the opposite side of the bracket to Nevada, which can only be good. Then there’s a (seemingly) favorable match-up with Wyoming, a team that only won four games in the conference season. While one of those wins was, as previously mentioned, against the Lobos, it will be a difficult feat for the Cowboys to beat the Lobos twice in a row.
The rest of the potential games for the Lobos are certainly winnable, which could provide solace for New Mexico and a fan base that is mourning the apparent death of the days of old under coaches like Bob King, Dave Bliss and, most recently, Steve Alford.
If New Mexico can get past the Cowboys on Wednesday, they’ll have a chance to take on Utah State, which earned a share of the regular season conference championship alongside Nevada.
While it’s not ideal to play the regular season conference champions in the quarter finals, beating the Aggies isn’t impossible for the Lobos as seen earlier in the year. To recall, New Mexico, with a two point lead, the ball and less than a minute remaining, was charged with a back-court violation (a call that was admitted to be incorrect by the Mountain West Conference) and lost the game against the Aggies on a last second three pointer by Abel Porter.
Though it was a loss and an “oh what could have been” moment, the Lobos showed that they can hang with the best of the league, much like they did in their 27 point victory over Nevada (let’s ignore the double digit away losses against the same two teams for now).
If they can manage the upset over the Aggies, they would play either Fresno State, San José State or Air Force. Again, the Lobos have either beat or competed well with all three of these teams, coming out winless only against Fresno State. For what it’s worth, they played the Bulldogs to eight points when the teams met in Albuquerque.
Of course, it will still be an uphill battle. The reality is, despite the blowout win over Nevada and close contests against Utah State and Fresno State, the Lobos are 2-8 against the top five teams in the league. To add insult to injury, they have also lost to both of the league’s tenth and eleventh place teams.
They also have yet to win more than two games in a row, making a four game win streak quite the stretch. They have struggled to take care of the ball consistently.
Add that the Lobos are particularly youthful, and one of the more “unlucky” teams in the Mountain West according to Ken Pomeroy’s analytics and you don’t exactly have a recipe for success. The only team more unlucky on the same side of the bracket as New Mexico is Fresno State.
Maybe a third round with the Bulldogs in the conference semi finals is exactly what the Lobos need to reach the championship . . . if you’re superstitious like that.
Still, I think that New Mexico is one of the teams with the most potential in the conference and if it just so happens that Paul Weir can get his team to start clicking and the bunnies start falling during the Mountain West Tournament, watch out.