It’s been the tale of two seasons for the New Mexico Lobos men’s basketball team.
At one point, they were the nation’s last unbeaten team. They were 14-0 for the first time in 55 years — surpassing last year’s win total (13) before it even took a loss — the only team in the Mountain West that was ranked in the AP Top-25 after not garnering any preseason votes.
“I thought we would be improved, but probably not sitting here like this,” Pitino said in December, after his team reached 11-0.
It wasn’t the most difficult non-conference schedule, in hindsight. Though New Mexico did pick up two quality wins against Saint Mary’s and Iona — who Pitino’s father, Rick, coaches for — by four and eight points, respectively. Though there’s still some decent victories against Southern Utah, South Alabama and San Francisco mixed into there.
Conference play arrived and the trail wasn’t as forgiving.
New Mexico picked up a pair of victories over Colorado State and Wyoming before its streak was halted by Fresno State and then UNLV, its first two-game losing skid since February of last season. Nevertheless, the Lobos picked itself up off the mat, securing three Quad 1 and 2 wins before suffering a double-overtime road loss against Nevada on Jan. 23.
Regardless, its resume looked promising as one of the conference’s best.
Now, New Mexico is spiraling, perhaps even out of the NCAA Tournament contention. It’s now lost five of its last six, including four straight. Even without their best player — and arguably the best player in the Mountain West in Jaelen House — for the last two, the Lobos reached a new low on Tuesday when they could not afford to.
New Mexico lost — at home — to Wyoming, 70-56. Wyoming, for perspective, is operating with seven scholarship players and is a week removed from losing their three offseason Pac-12 transfers; the Pokes have been without their best player due to injury (Graham Ike) for the entire season and will be without their leading scorer Noah Reynolds (concussion) for the rest of 2022-23, too.
UNM’s 56 points marked a season-low and the third-lowest of the Richard Pitino era. Without House — who’s sorely missed, with his ability to create offense for others, pressure the rim, push the pace, switch onto 2-3 positions and be physical at the point-of-attack — it had to rely on the conference’s leading scorer in Jamal Mashburn, Donovan Dent and KJ Jenkins to create offense not only for others, but themselves.
All had in-efficient outings with limited spacing.
“Losing one of your best players, one of the best players in the league, we can’t ignore that,” Pitino said after the game. “So we’re out of rhythm ... I think it was hurting us a little bit that they were playing off of Josiah (Allick) and off of Donovan (Dent). That’s a bit of a challenge, offensively, when they’re sitting in the lane off of those two guys. So, we were trying to go inside to Morris, but they were trapping and basically from the backside with either Josiah’s or Donovan’s guy.”
New Mexico’s now treading waters that no team on the bubble wants to tread.
It’s too soon to rid them of their at-large chances — things change fast, not just in the Mountain West, but across the country — but it’s worth mentioning that the Lobos are the only team in the top-70 of the NET with four combined Quad 3 and 4 losses.
With 38 at-large possibilities — with at least two (possibly three or more) bids coming from the Mountain West alone — New Mexico can’t afford any of these losses to their resume, no matter who’s inactive or active.
The thing going for them is that they have four of their final games against Quad 1-2 opponents (three on road), so they have more bites at the apple to improve their resume for one final push before the Mountain West Tournament begins.
There’s still time to dig out of its rut. But they must capitalize on future opportunities. They have only five Quad 1-2 wins, and should have House — who almost played Tuesday — back for their final few games, and the Mountain West Tournament at the very least. They’re just outside Joe Lunardi’s most-recent projection and are currently No. 55 in the NET, No. 62 in KenPom and No. 68 in BPI mere weeks after being surefire at-large candidates. They’re now hanging on by a thread to even have a chance — similarly to most teams in their territory.
Pitino and New Mexico have had a very successful season, for the most part. But it would be quite a letdown if this porous six-game stretch came back to haunt them on Selection Sunday if they were to miss the cut.