There was a time this season that I thought New Mexico was dead to rights. They had won a close game at Wyoming which I attended, but then lost back-to-back games to San Diego State and UNLV to fall to 1-2 in Mountain West play. It looked like they might be out of the league race and their NCAA tournament might be getting a little more doubtful.
All the Lobos did at that point was rattle off seven straight victories, finish with a share of the regular-season league title and then win the MW tournament last weekend in Las Vegas. They climbed all the way up to a No. 5 seed when the tournament field was released Sunday and will play No. 12 Long Beach State in the opening round. I think it’s a difficult matchup, but many seem to like the Lobos’ chances to make another run to the Sweet 16.
Steve Alford joined 1070 The Fan in Indianapolis with Dan Dakich to discuss how the Mountain West prepared the Lobos for this point, squaring off with good friend and Long Beach State coach Dan Monson, the Lobos’ biggest strength, the matchup with Long Beach State and what his team needs to do to win.
How did a strong Mountain West Conference prepare you for the NCAA tournament?:
“I hope that’s right. You’re right. The league that we’re playing in, we’re playing in front of an awful lot of people. We sell out at 15,500 just about every night. So we hope that that’s an advantage once we get into tournament play.”
On squaring off with good friend Dan Monson and Long Beach State in the first game:
“That’s always a hard thing. We had talked after he had won their tournament and after we had won our tournament. We were probably a 6 or 7 going into the tournament and then after winning it I knew we’d probably bump up to a 5. We had at least a one in four chance of being paired and they ended up doing it, so that’s unfortunate. As you know, when you play friends and guys you respect, that’s always hard when one of you is not going to advance.”
What’s the biggest strength of your team?:
“Well, I think our depth is one. We’ve got very good guard play. We take care of the ball, usually, and we’re going to have to do that against a very athletic Long Beach State team. But we’ve really shot the ball well the last month. Our offense is doing a lot better things of just moving the ball and getting it inside and out. Drew Gordon has really stepped up his offensive game. He’s always been a 12 and 12 guy and now he’s getting close to an 18 and 14 guy. That kind of move up has really taken us to another level. And we don’t drop off much when we go to our bench, if at all.”
How about your impressions of Long Beach State?:
“They’re really good. They’ve got to be the only team in the entire tournament where they’ve got four 1,000-point scorers in the lineup. You just don’t see that very often. They’ve been waiting; they lost in the championship game the last two years, so these kids have been waiting for this opportunity. They played a ridiculously difficult nonconference schedule. So I think this is a very, very dangerous team because of their athleticism and the talent they have.”
What do you guys have to do to win?:
“I think we have to do a good job of not turning the ball over. They’re athletic, they change defenses a lot, they’re very good in transition, so I think we’ve got to be able to get our defense set. We’ve been a really good defensive team all year long, but we’ve got to be able to set that defense. If we can set our defense, I think that really helps us.”