Dear Lobo Fans,
The Lobos adopted the mantra after the season-ending loss to Harvard, and, ever since, it has been the rallying cry of this team’s focus: to make a historic, post-season run. On senior night, Kendall Williams cited the motto, saying the Lobos were on a mission to complete unfinished business: win the regular-season outright in San Diego, continue on to Vegas for the tournament title, and then to the Big Dance to make history. The Lobos are saying all the right things, but, after falling short on Saturday, the team had to realize they did not fail to complete any unfinished business. And this week, the Lobos don’t have any unfinished business in Las Vegas.
As the Lobos prepare to make a post-season run, no one will be surprised if it starts with a conference tournament championship. UNM is the best all-around team in the Mountain West, and, in recent years, the Lobos have played exceptionally well in Vegas. With SDSU and UNLV poised to meet in the opposite semifinal, the Lobos only have to beat either the regular-season champion or the tournament host to win the conference title. It seems like a favorable draw for UNM.
The Lobos should dispatch Thursday’s opponent, but, on Friday, UNM will likely face a hot Nevada team or a talented Boise St. Both teams need to win the conference tournament to earn an automatic NCAA bid, so the Lobos’ opponent will play with a go-for-broke mentality. The Lobos can beat the Broncos or Wolf Pack at their best, but a victory against a team playing for everything will take a toll. If UNM advances, they will compete in an emotional, demanding championship game. Winning the tournament, as it has in the past, will require a supreme effort. The Thursday-Friday-Saturday format leaves the winning team with weary legs for the final stretch of the season where the Lobos’ true unfinished business lies--the NCAA Tournament.
In many seasons, the Lobos reached this time of year as a bubble team or worse, a team in need of the automatic bid. They needed to play all out because the season depended on winning the tournament. UNM enters the conference tournament this year as a lock for the Big Dance. The Lobos have the luxury of knowing they will be playing next week, and they should pace themselves accordingly. This does not mean the Lobos should show up Thursday planning to lose, but they must realize they don’t have to go for broke to win the conference tournament. This veteran team is resilient. The Lobos can handle a loss emotionally, and they learn from losses by improving weaknesses. This season the team responded to losses by winning. UNM’s only back-to-back losses came at Kansas and then to NMSU; as you may remember, Hugh Greenwood played injured in the first game and sat out the second.
The Final Four is a long shot for the Lobos, but, since 2010, four teams from non-power conferences put together historic runs to advance to the national semifinals. None of these teams won a conference tournament with Mountain West’s format. Before reaching the Final Four in 2010 and 2011, Butler won their conference tournaments, but Butler’s titles only required playing two tournament games on non-consecutive days. The other two non-power conference teams to reach the Final Four were VCU in 2011 and Wichita St. last year. Both teams lost in their tournament championships on the third night of back-to-back-to-back formats, like the Mountain West’s.
In power conferences, winning the conference tournament doesn’t offer a recipe for success either. In the last ten NCAA Tournaments, 21 of the 40 teams to reach the Final Four have been conference tournament champions. In other words, winning the conference tournament does not dramatically increase a team’s odds for success, but, as Lobos know all too well, playing your best basketball in the Big Dance is required for success.
Coach Craig Neal has paced this year’s team to play their best at the end of the season. The team is healthy, playing well, and primed for unfinished business beyond Vegas.
Yours in Section K
P.S. Last week, I posted a link to my column on the Lobo Lair, a privately-run discussion board for Lobo sports, and it was taken down by the website’s administrator. I asked why the link was removed, and the administrator, with the screen name Mark, wrote me, “Dont need that speculation on this board. Does the team no good.”
I respect the Lobo Lair’s right to monitor what goes up on its site. People post ugly, foul, and inappropriate messages on the web, and sports’ message boards seem to be a magnet for terrible comments, many seething with hate. My post did not contain anything of that nature as it explored what many Lobo fans are asking: who will return next season? After the departures of Steve Alford and Tony Snell last year, the topic is far from original, and we know the players consider their options for next season during the year. I understand how the topic could consume the locker room and hurt the team, but the Lobo Lair is not the locker room.
My worry is that the Lobo Lair’s censorship comes from a larger cultural trend of valuing unwavering support over honest discussion and, in other cases, truth. This same cultural value in other circumstances hurts people. Whether covering up sexual harassment in the military or villainizing whistleblowers revealing gross transgressions, the trend to jeopardize personal integrity before turning on notions of loyalty promotes a morally-bankrupt society. If we censor people for acts of courage, such as standing up to injustices, or if we simply discourage honest discussion, our society will be empty--devoid of direction, justice, and truth.
(Image credit: unmflickr)