New Mexico looks to take next step in NCAA Tournament

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The New Mexico bandwagon always seems to pick up a few extra people toward the end of the season, annually playing some of its best basketball heading into the NCAA Tournament. And then the Lobos fail to make it out of the first weekend of the big dance.

This season, New Mexico has the pieces to take the next step. And once again, the Lobos have momentum.

New Mexico won the Mountain West tournament championship on Saturday night, taking down top-seeded San Diego State, 64-58. It was an impressive way for the Lobos to respond after last weekend's blown lead against the Aztecs in the regular-season finale.

Cameron Bairstow finished with 17 points and nine rebounds, and Kendall Williams scored 16 points, including a dagger 3-pointer in the final 30 seconds to ice the game for New Mexico. 

The win will probably push the Lobos as high as a 5-seed -- but can they take advantage of the hot finish? New Mexico was a 5-seed or better in three of the past four seasons, but the Lobos never got out of the first weekend.

In 2010, the Lobos won 15 in a row before losing in the conference tournament -- and then were dropped by Washington in the Round of 32. In 2011, New Mexico won 12 of its final 14 games, including the Mountain West title game, but Louisville bounced them in the Round of 32. And then last season, of course, when New Mexico had one of the best tournament resumes in the country, winning the Mountain West tournament, and then promptly losing to Harvard in the Round of 64.

I think this could be the year New Mexico finally rids itself of the demons and gets to the second weekend. The Lobos have lost just three times since Dec. 17, by a combined seven points. They beat San Diego State two out of three times, and have really locked down on the defensive end of the floor, for the most part.

"There are a lot of emotions going on right now," Williams said. "We are going to really enjoy this today and then wake up tomorrow and get ready for what we deem to be unfinished business.”

Bairstow has developed into one of the best big men in the country, and Williams is still a stud point guard. Alex Kirk has been up and down in terms of offensive production, but he's a difficult matchup for defenses. They score inside, they get to the free-throw line, and they take care of the ball. And the rest of it comes on the defensive end, where New Mexico guards inside the arc as well as anyone in the country. They block shots and rebound effectively, and force teams to make perimeter shots.

"It's all about seeding, all about the draw," first-year head coach Craig Neal said. "I have a pretty good basketball team."

They likely won't be favored in a Round of 32 game and you might not want to trust them based on recent history, but Neal has the roster to reach the Sweet 16.

New Mexico's Kendall Williams kisses the MVP trophy after the Lobos win the MWC. (USATSI)
New Mexico's Kendall Williams kisses the MVP trophy after the Lobos win the MWC. (USATSI)
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