Stevens: New Mexico Lobos Men's Basketball 2011-12 Season Review
April 10, 2012
New Mexico Lobo Men's Basketball --- 2011-12 Season Review
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
In a season marked by two Mountain West trophies, championship rings, 28 wins, and an NCAA ride that took a Final Four Louisville team to end, maybe the best part of New Mexico's 2011-12 season was really the way this gusty Steve Alford team continued to get better.
Not all Mountain West teams or NCAA teams can say that. Do you remember Alford's 13 Days of Challenge?
"I told them it's going to be 13 days like they've never seen," Alford said at the time. "I'm going to step on them as long as I have to step on them."
The pitch Alford made at his Lobos (1-2 in MW) was that the hard push would get them back into the Mountain West race. Which it did. Of course, there was more to come.
The Lobos would reap the rewards of Alford's knowledge - and his push -- throughout the regular season chase, in the Mountain West Tournament, and in the NCAA wars to come. The Lobos placed a chip on their shoulders and then backed that grudge with solid and focused basketball.
There were several ways to note the improvement curve these Lobos threw at the Mountain West and one way was turning the kiss-your-sister ending to the MW regular-season race into Lobo dominance at the Mountain West Tournament.
The Lobos tied for the MW regular-season chase. The Lobos cut down nets at the end of the regular season, as did San Diego State. But when it came to going to basketball war in Las Vegas' Thomas & Mack, the Lobos rolled the UNLV Rebels off their home court and beat San Diego State for the title and the automatic NCAA bid.
In Vegas, there were only Lobos holding scissors.
And Drew Gordon, the Lobos' 6-foot-9, double-double post, who was snubbed for MW Player of The Year honors, roared to the MW tourney MVP crown. Yes, there was a lot of vindication for Lobos in the Thomas & Mack.
The Lobos ended the 2011-12 season better than any other MW team in another way, too - in the NCAA Tournament way. The Lobos were the only MW team to post an NCAA tournament win as SDSU and UNLV were knocked out in the first round.
And when the final ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll was released, there was only one Mountain West team ranked: New Mexico, the team that trailed SDSU and UNLV in the national polls throughout the regular season. It was the 10th time in program history that UNM has finished the season ranked in the final coaches' poll, and the second time in the last three seasons.
The Lobos established themselves as the best in the Mountain, but maybe they also proved to be the best of the West. New Mexico was the only team located in the Mountain or Pacific Time zones to make the final poll. The Associated Press does not release a season ending poll, but UNM was ranked No. 21 in the final AP Poll released prior to the start of the NCAA Tournament.
The Lobos surged into the NCAA Tournament with a No. 5 seed, knocked down a red-hot Long Beach State team before rallying out of a 15-point hole to put a scare to mighty Louisville in a 59-56 UNM loss.
It was Louisville's biggest scare until the Cardinals ran into eventual national champion Kentucky in The Final Four.
Alford's Lobos continued to show grit on the road by posting 14 wins away from The Pit which broke the program's record of 13 set two seasons earlier by Alford's Lobos.
"I want to say this team amazed me all year and in some ways it did," said Lobo Coach Steve Alford. "But the work effort and unselfishness of this team surfaced all season and those are two of the things that make for a special season. These guys earned their success.
"This was obviously a special year with a special team. What an honor for me to coach this group of young men."
If there was a major turning point in the season, it came after UNM lost 77-70 in The Pit to San Diego State and were rolled 80-63 at UNLV. Alford then issued his 13 Days of Challenge and the Lobos rolled up their sleeves.
"We had our ups and downs, but we stuck together," said Tony Snell. "We fought through it."
The Lobos rolled out seven straight wins and reversed the scoreboard on SDSU (77-67) and on the Runnin' Rebels (65-45). UNM also had a 39-point win at Air Force.
The Pit win over the Rebs was dramatic - even stunning. Gordon had 27 points and 20 boards. UNLV had four field goals in the second half, shooting 23.5 in the final 20 minutes. This reversal was similar to the one the Lobos threw on New Mexico State when the Lobos walked out of the Pan American Center with a 20-point romp.
What emerged from Alford's 13 Days of Challenge was a team with a special chemistry and a junkyard-dog love of defense. Gordon's inside presence was a huge key, but the perimeter talent on Alford's edge was deep and multiple: Kendall Williams, Hugh Greenwood, Tony Snell, Phillip McDonald, Jamal Fenton and Demetrius Walker.
The depth of the UNM roster was reflected in role players such as A.J. Hardeman, Cameron Bairstow and Chad Adams. The Lobos' bench was surely the best in the Mountain West and probably one of the best in the nation.
The job Alford did with this Lobo team probably rivals what he did in 2010 when UNM dropped its first two league games and then finished 14-2. Alford did it by honoring the basics of basketball: shot selection, rebounding, valuing possessions, and mean mother-bear defense.
Gordon recorded 19 double-doubles on the season, good for 10th nationally, and his 11.1 rebounds per game were fourth nationally.
The 59.3 points allowed per game mark is the lowest ever in the shot clock era, and the lowest total since allowing 59.2 points in the 1983-84 season. The .384 defensive field goal percentage marked the first time that UNM has held opponents for an entire season under 40% shooting since the 1964-65 season (.367).
Gordon was named to the All-Mountain West First Team and also made First Team All-District 17 by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. Williams also was First Team All-District and was placed on the All-MW Second Team. Snell was All-MW honorable mention.
The season ended in familiar fashion for the Lobos. They were wearing rings, cutting down nets and carrying gaudy trophies. For Alford, in his fifth season as a Lobo, he has more wins, a higher winning percentage and more regular-season league titles than any previous Lobo coach during a five-year span.
The challenge for Alford and his Lobos for 2012-13 is simple enough: Do it again!
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and Sports Columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.