With the Lobo as their mascot (Spanish for “Wolf,” not to be confused with former women’s basketball player Rebecca Lobo), New Mexico is one of nine schools that call the Mountain West Conference home. They were a charter member of the MWC in 1999, and prior to that held court in three different athletic conferences: the Border Intercollegiate Athletic Association (1931-1951), the Mountain States/Skyline Conference (1951-1962), and the Western Athletic Conference (aka the WAC, where they were a charter member in 1962, and remained until 1999).
Dating back to 1968, the Lobos have made the NCAA Tournament on 12 different occasions, including this year. They have never advanced past the second round. In 1974, New Mexico reached the regional semifinal game — which was then the second round — in a 25-team edition of the Big Dance. During a four-year span from 1996 to 1999, the Lobos made the NCAA Tournament every single year, losing in the second round each time.
Notable alumni of the UNM basketball program include former Los Angeles Laker and current USC women’s basketball head coach Michael Cooper; one-time Kansas Jayhawk and current New York Knick J.R. Giddens; former Portland Trailblazer Charles Smith; ex-Chicago Bulls center Luc Longley; former Philadelphia 76er and current NBA free agent Kenny Thomas; and current fantasy basketball player Indiana Pacer Danny Granger.
New Mexico is led by third-year head coach Steve Alford, a former NBA point guard who played his college ball at Indiana University under the legendary Bob Knight. To many basketball aficianados, Alford is best remembered as one of the subjects of John Feinstein’s book A Season On The Brink, which detailed Indiana’s 1985-1986 season (Alford’s junior year) under Coach Knight.
Alford helped carry the Hoosiers to the 1987 NCAA Championship, then spent four years in the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors. Following his professional playing career, Alford took the reins as head coach of multiple collegiate programs. He got his start at Division III Manchester (Indiana) College from 1991-1995; skippered Southwest Missouri State from 1995-1999; moved on to Iowa from 1999-2007; and has been the man-in-charge at New Mexico since ’07.
In their first two seasons under Alford, the Lobos made the NIT Tournament in consecutive years. In 2008, New Mexico was defeated in the first round by Cal. In 2009, UNM knocked off Nebraska in the opening round before succumbing to Notre Dame in round two.
This year’s Lobos have a 30-4 record (including postseason play) and are a three-seed as an at-large bid out of the MWC. Three of their four losses came in a five-game span dating back to December 23, when they lost at Oral Roberts, and extending to January 9, following a loss at San Diego State and another defeat at home against UNLV. A fourth loss came in the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference Tournament, when San Diego State again toppled New Mexico on their way to the conference tournament championship, which they would ultimately win.
Prior to the Lobos’ most recent loss to SDSU, they had run off 15 straight victories over an eight-week time period. To start the season, New Mexico had won their first 12 games in a row, meaning 27 of their 30 victories have come in the midst of two separate winning streaks.
Despite their proficiency, New Mexico began the conference season 0-2 (with the two aforementioned losses to San Diego State and UNLV), before winning their final 14 regular season conference games.
Against NCAA Tournament teams, the Lobos were 8-3 this year. Their eight victories included wins over California, New Mexico State (twice), Texas A&M, BYU (twice), San Diego State, and UNLV. Their three losses came at the hands of San Diego State (twice) and UNLV.
New Mexico was ranked No. 8 in the final Associated Press Top 25 Poll, and No. 10 in the final USA Today/Coaches’ Top 25 Poll for the 2009-2010 season.
On the court, the Lobos are led by 6’7″ junior guard Darington Hobson, a junior college transfer from Las Vegas who was selected as this year’s Mountain West Conference Player of the Year. Hobson, who played his freshman and sophomore seasons at the College of Eastern Utah, averages 16.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 1.3 steals per game. He is long, lean, and can more or less do it all for his team. He shoots 43.9% from the field and 35.8% from beyond the arc. His Achilles’ heel is the free-throw line, where he knocks down charity shots at a measly 66.0%. In his past two games, he has gone just 5-for-10 from the stripe.
A left-hander, Hobson combines the ball-handling skill of a point guard with the ability of a small forward to create on the wing. According to reports, he spends a lot of time at the three and four positions for New Mexico and struggles on defense as a result. He makes up for his on-ball deficiencies by crashing the glass and grabbing rebounds, but he can and should be scored upon by the likes of the Washington frontcourt.
The big question right now for New Mexico is whether or not Hobson will even play in Saturday’s game. In the second half of the team’s first-round game against Montana, the swingman fell awkwardly and landed on his left (shooting) wrist. He is having an X-ray done today and will rest in preparation for the game tomorrow. After the contest, Hobson was quoted as saying that he “can’t really do anything that involves using the basketball,” and that his wrist was “throbbing.” Bad news for the Lobos, great news for the Huskies.
Accompanying Hobson in the Lobos’ starting lineup are three sidekicks that each average double figures scoring: 6’6″ senior forward Roman Martinez, 6’1″ junior point guard Dairese Gary, and 6’5″ sophomore shooting guard Phillip McDonald.
Martinez averages 14 points, six rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game. He is another long, lean body that can do a little bit of everything for the Lobos. While he scores at a slightly lower clip than Hobson, he happens to be a better overall shooter. He shoots a respectable 44.2% from the field, an exceptional 41.6% from beyond the arc, and a decent 75.3% from the stripe. In Thursday’s win over Montana, Martinez poured in 19 points (nine coming off three-pointers), had six rebounds, dished out four assists, blocked two shots, and recorded a steal.
Gary is the engine that makes New Mexico run. The team’s playmaker averages 12.8 points, 3.9 assists, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.0 steals per game. He shoots 44.2% from the field, 34.9% from three-point range, and 75.3% from the line. The junior has recorded double figures scoring in his past six games, including a 15-point performance against Montana on Thursday.
McDonald is yet another long, lean body that patrols the perimeter for New Mexico. The second-year player averages 10.6 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. He shoots 43.2% from the field, 39.7% from beyond the arc, and 69.1% from the free-throw line. He has struggled as of late, failing to record double-digits in points in six of his past seven games.
Amongst the supporting cast, forwards A.J. Hardeman and Will Brown are two big bodies that man the paint for the Lobos. Hardeman, a 6’8″ sophomore, averages 7.1 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. He shoots 53.8% from the field, but just 48.9% from the stripe. Brown, also a 6’8″ sophomore, averages 4.2 points and 3.6 rebounds per game. Like Hardeman, he shoots a respectable 50.4% from the field and an ugly 50.0% from the line.
Sophomore Nate Garth is the first backcourt player off the bench for New Mexico. The 6’2″ combo guard averages 4.1 points and 1.6 assists for the Lobos. He shoots just 33.6% from the field, but makes up for it by shooting 35.4% from three and 72.4% from the stripe.
New Mexico compares very favorably to the Huskies’ opening-round opponent, Marquette. They feature five regulars who can shoot the three, play bigger than their stature, and like to run. Similar to Marquette, they possess no rotational player who stands taller than 6’8″. Darrington Hobson, like Lazar Hayward before him, is the team’s go-to guy who can more or less do it all. Hobson, however, isn’t nearly as strong or polished as Hayward happens to be.
While New Mexico boasts the better record and goes eight players deep (as opposed to the Golden Eagles going six or seven deep), they are essentially a poor-man’s Marquette. The six regulars on the Eagles’ squad could all do just a bit more than the six guard-forwards from UNM. The difference is in the Lobos’ interior players, who can bang with the likes of Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Tyreese Breshers, and provide a wrinkle in the offense that Washington did not experience against Marquette.
Just like on Thursday, this matchup should be a shootout. The Lobos average 76.2 points per game to the Huskies’ 79.8. They try to push the tempo and, like Marquette and even Cal, live and die by the three. If the Dawgs intend to win this contest, they’ll need good perimeter defense and be able to maintain that inside-outside balance that they displayed in the first round.
This should be a great matchup, just like it was against Marquette, and will provide another high-flying, run-n-gun show for viewers.