Getting a Top 25 ranking hasn’t been paramount on the minds of Jamal Mashburn Jr. and New Mexico.
“If they (the Associated Press voters) give us a ranking, I’d be blessed,” he said. “I mean, we just got to keep going and keep pressing. And that’ll come. That’ll come later, you know? We’re not worried about that.”
It came on Monday with the news that the unbeaten Lobos were ranked 22nd, the first time since March 2014 they’d earned a Top 25 spot. They’ll carry that ranking and a 12-0 record into Wednesday night’s Mountain West Conference opener with visiting Colorado State in Albuquerque.
How has New Mexico stayed one of three Division I unbeatens through nonconference play? The easy answer is to say a soft schedule helped. And the Lobos have played just three teams ranked above 154 in kenpom.com’s rankings. But when they’ve had a chance to play a good team, they’ve cashed it in.
A win at Saint Mary’s on Nov. 30 moved many needles. Beating San Francisco on a neutral floor Dec. 12 also helped and stopping Iona on Dec. 18 in a much-ballyhooed father vs. son coaching matchup of Pitinos gave New Mexico serious momentum.
The Lobos are efficient and persistent. They rank 12th in kenpom.com in points scored off free throws while playing the 29th-fastest tempo at nearly 73 possessions per game. And in Morris Udeze (17.5 points per game), Mashburn (16.8 ppg) and Jaelen House (16.4 ppg), they have a three-man nucleus combining for more than 50 ppg.
In New Mexico’s previous game, a 94-63 rout of Prairie View A&M on Dec. 20, it put five players in double figures and blocked a program-record 14 shots.
“To be able to do that in year two speaks to the character in the locker room,” Pitino said of starting 12-0.
Meanwhile, Colorado State (8-5) is coming off a 73-64 loss to USC last Wednesday in Phoenix. The Rams forced 22 turnovers but converted them into only 16 points because they couldn’t consistently make shots. They hit only 37.7 percent from the field and were just 5 of 27 on 3-pointers.
Wasted in the loss were Patrick Cartier’s 22 points on just 10 shots and a 15-point, nine-assist effort by Isaiah Stevens. Despite missing the first seven games during the nonconference schedule with a foot injury, Stevens leads the team with 18.3 ppg and 5.8 assists.
Guard John Tonje chips in 14.2 points and a team-high 5.2 rebounds per game, although he was held to six points on 1-of-8 shooting in the loss to USC. Tonje is averaging more than five ppg above his previous career high, set last year.
“He’s not scared to compete with anybody,” Stevens said of Tonje.
This will be the 130th all-time meeting of the programs. New Mexico leads the series 78-51, including a 50-13 record in the Pit.
–Field Level Media