While the nation and its pundits were oozing over Jimmer Fredette and his ability to score in bunches, the University of New Mexico Lobos were suffering through a slog. Since winning the Mountain West Conference in back to back years, the Lobos began this basketball season with universally-acknowledged too-high expectations. We were picked third and that was probably generous. As the season got into its second part, conference play began to show the Lobos as the young team we truly are; we began at Wyoming with a loss, picked up a win against Colorado State University, and then went on a three game losing streak, including San Diego State University (number six in the nation at that time!), Utah and a heartbreaker at UNLV.
The tide is turning, though. After smashing TCU at the Pit, UNM readied for Jimmermania, as the BYU Cougars descended upon Albuquerque, fresh off a conference victory over SDSU - up to number four in the nation, at the time of their defeat. Jimmer gave interviews warning that it was difficult to come into the Pit, but the press refused to listen: Fredette was (and is) already being crowned player of the year. (He still might nab the honor, and in no way do I think a loss in the Pit should disqualify him from the award.) UNM beat BYU in both of the conference games last year, though, and Fredette knows about the tenacity of the Lobos.
So on Saturday, as the Lobos made a game of it in the first half and stretched their lead little by little in the second, there weren't many truly shocked faces in Albuquerque. Even SLAM Magazine ranked it as the least surprising upset of the weekend. But that doesn't change the fact that it was an upset, or the fact that UNM is starting to come alive.
After defeating Air Force last night, UNM now sits at exactly .500 in conference play. We can still make a run at the conference championship because we've got Wyoming, Utah, UNLV and Air Force (again) at home. None of those games are gimmes, given the way the Lobos have played at times this season, but they should be favored to win all four, no matter the circumstances, especially at home.
The real trouble comes when we look at the road schedule, especially with the visit to San Diego (back at number six in the nation, at this time) ad BYU (number nine at the time, thirsting for revenge regardless of ranking). The game at CSU shouldn't be overlooked, seeing as the Rams are two games ahead of the Lobos. Lastly, UNM visits the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs the game before going to see BYU - this smacks of looking ahead in the schedule, so coach Steve Alford will be doing his best to keep the young Lobos tuned in to the task at hand.
Beating a BYU team that had only suffered one loss on the season previously is a great place to start, though. Despite the slow start, despite the youth of the team (or maybe because of it, as the play of Tony Snell and Kendall Williams might attest) , and despite two teams in the conference bouncing around the top ten rankings in the nation practically all season, the UNM Lobos might have reached a turning point last weekend.