New Mexico headlines fantastic foursome in MWC

It was supposed to be a rebuilding year in the Mountain West
Conference.

Instead, the league could land four teams in the NCAA tournament
– maybe five if one of the second-tier schools gets especially hot
this week at the conference tourney at the Thomas & Mack
Center.

The only seniors among the 15 players who made the
all-conference squads are forward Roman Martinez of eighth-ranked
and top-seeded New Mexico and swingman Jonathan Tavernari of
second-seeded BYU.

The Lobos went 28-3 and handed No. 14 BYU (28-4) half of its
losses. The third seed is UNLV (23-7) and the fourth seed is San
Diego State (22-8).

With so many seniors having left the league after last year,
which was widely considered the strongest in its first decade of
existence, expectations weren’t high for the Mountain West this
year.

“I don’t think anybody saw this year coming with all the young
guys,” New Mexico coach Steve Alford said Wednesday.

Nobody exemplifies the stunning success of this year’s MWC teams
as much as New Mexico, which was picked to finish fifth in the
preseason polls.

Behind Martinez and juniors Dairese Gary and Darington Hobson,
the league’s newcomer and player of the year, the Lobos went 6-0
against ranked teams, tied a school record for wins and, thanks to
a 14-game winning streak, clinched their first conference regular
season crown since 1994.

They haven’t lost since Jan. 9.

Yet, they’ve been one-and-done in the MWC tournament four years
in a row, the last two under Alford, the league’s coach of the year
two years running.

“We’ve talked about it, (but) each team’s different,” Alford
said. “We’ve never come here as the No. 1 seed, we’ve never come
here with an RPI of 7 or 28-3, so you can only talk about it so
much because the guys look at you and say, ‘Oh, that’s great but
this is a new year, it’s a new team.’ And this is a conference
champion team.

“So, it’s a little different demeanor. We come into this
tournament knowing we’re in the NCAA tournament and knowing we’ve
had a great year, so there’s not quite the pressure and the stress
we’ve had the last two years” when they were squarely on the
bubble.

Martinez said nerves are no longer an issue with this team, even
though it’s young, and Hobson said that pressure has been replaced
by a quiet confidence.

“Yeah, I think we’re going to come in loose and just play our
game because there’s no pressure. We’re already in the (NCAA)
tournament,” Hobson said. “But we can’t relax on that and just
sit back and say, ‘We’re going to the NCAA tournament, so these
games don’t really matter.’ We’re competitors and we’re going to
compete every game and really try to win this championship to get a
high seed.”

Hobson, a junior college transfer from the College of Eastern
Utah, is from Las Vegas, but he’s not looking at this tournament as
any sort of homecoming.

“It’s just another road game. It’s all business. I don’t really
pay attention to me coming home to play. It really doesn’t
matter,” he insisted.

So, how many family and friends will be packing the Thomas &
Mack Center to see him play?

“I don’t know. I turn my phone off when I come here,” Hobson
explained. “I’m pretty sure they’ll be here, but I don’t talk to
any of them.”

He hopes not to check his messages until Saturday night,
either.

“Holding the trophy and we walk off the court, then I’ll turn
the phone back on,” he said with a smile. “But right now I’m just
trying to stay focused on what we’re trying to do here.”

While the NCAA tournament selection committee might know how
tough this conference is, Hobson isn’t so sure hoops fans across
the country realize it.

He said he knew the Lobos were better than the middle of the
pack when he first arrived to Albuquerque.

“The year before they picked them fifth and they shared the
title. We weren’t worried about it,” Hobson said. “None of us
were on any preseason teams or preseason newcomer, freshman, no one
got any of those accolades in the preseason. So, it was just a
matter of coming in with a chip on our shoulder and proving people
wrong because we knew we were a better team than fifth.”

It took a while for even him to realize how good the league was,
however.

It wasn’t until the Lobos, who went 14-1 in the non-conference
slate, dropped their first two league games – at San Diego State
and to UNLV, and by double digits.

“We really got a wake-up call and for us to go on a 14-game
winning streak, that’s tremendous,” Hobson said. “Our conference
is really underestimated. I don’t think San Diego State or UNLV
should be on the bubble. I think they’re solid NCAA tournament
teams.

“Of course, we should get four teams in, easily.”