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New Mexico Lobos eager to prove Mountain West's strength during March Madness

New Mexico head coach Richard Pitino celebrates with the net after his team defeated San Diego State in an NCAA college basketball championship game at the Mountain West Conference tournament Saturday, March 16, 2024, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)
Steve Marcus/AP
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New Mexico head coach Richard Pitino celebrates with the net after his team defeated San Diego State in an NCAA college basketball championship game at the Mountain West Conference tournament Saturday, March 16, 2024, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Jamal Mashburn Jr. feels the New Mexico Lobos are peaking at the right time.

They dismiss the idea that the Mountain West Conference tournament champs face extra pressure to make a deep run to follow San Diego State's amazing run to the national championship game a year ago.

"Everything is in our control right now," Mashburn said Thursday. "I mean, I don't look at it as disrespect, I'm just blessed that we're here and we're able to play a great brand of New Mexico basketball."

The Lobos (26-9) earned the program's 16th NCAA Tournament berth and first in a decade by knocking off a trio of teams who also made it to March Madness, including the 2023 national runners-up, San Diego State. New Mexico became the first to win the Mountain West by winning four games in as many days on its way to the Lobos' fifth tournament title. That run had some fans crying when the Lobos returned home from Las Vegas. Then the Mountain West showed its growing strength getting six teams into this tournament.

So New Mexico isn't worried about trying to measure up to anyone else Friday when they play sixth-seeded Clemson (21-11) in the first meeting between the programs. They just want a win, which would be New Mexico's first in this tournament since downing Long Beach State in 2012. The Lobos have been a popular pick to make a run similar to the Aztecs'.

New Mexico coach Richard Pitino, who's been busy building this program the past three years, is focused only on Clemson.

"I don't know if it fuels our guys," Pitino said. "I hope it doesn't. We know if we're able to beat a Clemson team, we're going to have to play very, very well. And all the other stuff is just, it's good for the fans and obviously good for social media."

Clemson has had time to rest since losing in the second round of the Atlantic Coast Conference. This is the Tigers' fourth tournament berth with coach Brad Brownell, and they have noticed so many people picking against them now.

"It's pretty hard not to see that kind of stuff, just with the social media and stuff," said Clemson center PJ Hall. "But at the same time, also after our last loss, can't blame all the people for thinking that."


The gap between No. 3 seed Baylor and Colgate, the West Region's 14th seed, is massive.

The Bears (23-10) won the 2021 national championship and have been seeded no lower than third in each of their past four tournaments. Colgate's Raiders are looking for their first victory in March Madness.

In 2021 and 2022, the Bears were No. 1 seeds. Now coach Scott Drew has four new starters, though senior guard RayJ Dennis said they're essentially sophomores now with a season of experience.

"Their best ball is ahead of them," Dennis said.

Colgate (25-9) of the Patriot League is making its fifth straight and seventh all-time NCAA appearance. Coach Matt Langel has constantly tweaked his approach looking for a difference. He may have it with a group that has grown up together and knows what it takes to prepare game to game. Langel doesn't see having been here before as adding more pressure.

"You have to play a special game," Langel said.


At one point, Alabama seemed destined for a top-three seed and likely a preferred placement somewhere in the Southeast for the opening weekend.

Losing three of four games and getting bounced in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament dropped the Crimson Tide down to a No. 4 seed and sent them to Spokane, Washington.

"We felt like maybe we could have been a little bit better, but we had some injuries, we didn't close the season well with our injuries," Alabama coach Nate Oats said. "But we're excited to be in the tournament."

Alabama (21-11) will try to stop the slide Friday in its opener against No. 13 seed Charleston (27-7). The Tide stumbled down the stretch with a pair of losses to Florida and a loss on its own court to Tennessee.

The Crimson Tide will start the NCAAs a bit healthier. Rylan Griffen and Latrell Wrightsell Jr. both should be able to play against Charleston without limits on minutes played. Griffen is averaging 11 points per game, while Wrightsell has added nine points primarily off the bench. The Tide also will have Nick Pringle available to play after he dealt with a personal issue earlier this week, Oats said.

It's not all good news. Backup Davin Cosby Jr. suffered a broken bone in his foot earlier this week, sidelining him.


Bryce Drew's family tree created perhaps an unreasonable level of expectation when it comes to the NCAA Tournament.

His dad, Homer, took a group of underdogs to the Sweet 16. His brother, Scott, has a national title at Baylor.

At this point, taking Grand Canyon to the tournament for the third time in four seasons, Bryce Drew would be thrilled with getting his first victory as a coach.

"No pressure on little brother with all they've done," Bryce Drew said with a smile.

The 12th-seeded Antelopes face No. 5 seed Saint Mary's in the first round in Spokane, Washington, on Friday.

Grand Canyon has become the class of the WAC under Drew and created a fervent fan base on its Phoenix campus. That has yet to translate to an NCAA victory. The Antelopes were a No. 15 seed in their first NCAAs in 2021 and a No. 14 seed last year when they were bounced by Gonzaga in the first round.

This year is Grand Canyon's highest seed and likely best chance at a victory, especially considering the contrasting styles.

Saint Mary's wants to play patient and methodical. Grand Canyon plays with tempo and speed. The Antelopes are averaging nearly 80 points per game.

"Bryce has done a really nice job there and they have done a great job with their program," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said.


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