Stevens: Energy of Vegas & MW Tournament Awaits Alford's Lobos

March 7, 2012

New Mexico Lobos Men's Basketball - At the Mountain West Tournament

Thursday to Saturday - Thomas & Mack Center - Las Vegas, Nevada
7:05 p.m. (MT) New Mexico Lobos (24-6) vs. Air Force Falcons (13-15)
On the Air: The Mtn-TV; 770-AM KKOB - Lobo Radio Network Lobo TV, Game Recap, Full Stats, Quotes, Game Tracker

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/

The energy is different. It's a Las Vegas thing, sure. This city of lights and nights that scratches the skyline with the shapes of pyramids, New York buildings, and Roman palaces is different, energizing and seductive.

It's also a basketball thing. You have your Mountain West peers, your enemies and their fans all gathered in a single site to do stage a three-day battle for another big trophy.

The Vegas Strip might not include the Thomas & Mack Center, but the vibrant happenings outside the gym seem to be carried inside by intangible means that add to the dynamism of both fans and athletes.

There is that underlying current of electricity and urgency so often found in the mano y mano battles of a prize fight.

In a way, this Mountain West Tournament is a mano y mano. New Mexico Lobos and Air Force Falcons will look each other in the eye beginning at 7:05 p.m. (MT) at the Mack and the team that most flinches will leave Vegas a loser.

"If we don't beat Air Force, we are out of the conference tournament and we wait until Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament," said Lobo Coach Steve Alford. "We'd like to be there a while. There is another championship out there."

Vegas is a city of chance that offers great promises and for most of the MW teams that gather in the Thomas & Mack for this three-day run there is that dangling carrot of hope called an NCAA bid.

It appears certain that San Diego State, UNLV and Alford's Lobos will be ticketed for the NCAA dance regardless of what they do on this Vegas court. Those three teams have rolled out special seasons. They deserve to dance with the nation's finest next week.

But the motivation of teams like Air Force, Boise State, Wyoming, TCU has to be sky high. They have been backed into the ropes like a desperate fighter and if they go to the canvas, their NCAA dreams fall with them. You can expect these underdogs to fight with nasty intent.

But do they have the talent and the skills to get it done?

The Air Force Falcons need a miracle knockout punch and then another and then another. The enticing thing about this tournament is that you can string three wins together and go NCAA. But you start with Game One.

"It's win and continue or lose and go home," said Alford.

The Lobos enter the fray at The Mack as co-MW champions along with San Diego State. The Aztecs grabbed the No. 1 seed and the Lobos feel on the bracket side that features No. 3 UNLV running on their home court.

Of course, this is not a fair thing and there is always great outrage toward this Reb advantage. UNLV is 16-0 in The Mack. But postseason tournaments are not really about what is fair. They are designed to make money and the big-buck coaches of college basketball surely understand this principle.

So, the basketballs go up in Vegas and the fans swarm into Sin City and it is what it is until it changes.

What it is for the Lobos is a third game against an Air Force team that the Lobos mashed 81-42 at Air Force and 86-56 in The Pit. For the Lobos, it's about focus and doing in Vegas what they have done all year.

For Air Force, it's about overachieving. There is a reason the Falcons lost 15 games this season. They are not real tall and they are not as talented as UNM, SDSU or UNLV. There is a reason the Falcons won three MW games, too. They can be good.

The Falcons did not do a good job in controlling tempo against the Lobos during the regular season. "They are trying to get up and down the court a little bit, trying to play a little faster," said Alford.

If the Falcons plan to beat the Lobos in Vegas, the Falcons probably need to change that mindset. They cannot play "fast" with the Lobos. They have to try and beat UNM with system and defense - not fast breaks. Air Force needs a game in the 60s.

The Falcons' best talent is Michael Lyons, who averages 15.5 points in 22 games played. Mike Fitzgerald averages 10.6 points in 28 games. The Falcons have no force inside while UNM has 6-9 Drew Gordon, who had 17 points and 12 boards in UNM's win in The Pit.

"The guys are feeling good about themselves and have a lot of confidence," said Alford of his Lobos. "We respect the game and part of respecting the game is respecting your opponent.

"This team (UNM) hasn't been respected all year long. It's always been something. I think these guys have had a chip on their shoulder all year long. They haven't gotten the respect that they have warranted. I think they'll be very motivated and driven to advance in this tournament.

Alford seems to like that chip and the motivation that comes with it. The Lobos have motivation to win the MW tourney because the Lobos like to win and they like to win championships. The MW tourney results also can influence seeding for the upcoming NCAA Championships.

"The more games you can win, that would enhance your seeding in the NCAA Tournament," said Alford. "I think the seeding in the NCAA Tournament is very important."

A win over Air Force probably won't do much for UNM's eventual seeding. A loss would hurt. If you look down the MW tourney road, there are games that could greatly enhance UNM's seeding. If there are no upsets, the Lobos would play Vegas in the semifinals and the Aztecs in the title game.

For those games, the energy will be different. That's just the way it is.