After No. 1 Purdue lost on Monday night at home to Rutgers, 65-64, only one unbeaten men’s Division I team remains. And it is a team you probably have not heard much about: New Mexico.
Despite its gaudy 14-0 record and being coached by a Pitino, New Mexico is on no one’s list of national championship contenders. Why? Because its victories have come over a lot of bad teams.
While most top teams have tested themselves against at least a few strong opponents, New Mexico has mostly faced cupcakes.
The lone exception was a good 69-65 road victory over a fine St. Mary’s team (12-4). At least some credit should be given for wins over Iona (10-4) and San Francisco (11-6) as well.
But after that, New Mexico’s schedule so far is a steady dose of teams like Prairie View A&M (5-9), North Dakota State (4-11), Northern Colorado (5-9) and Division II Western New Mexico.
The Associated Press ranking released Monday, before Purdue’s loss, put New Mexico only at No. 21. Some computer ratings put the team even lower: Jeff Sagarin has it at No. 52. ESPN’s Bracketology projects New Mexico as only an eighth seed in the N.C.A.A. tournament, ranking it between 29 and 32 nationally. Not very high praise for the one team that has not yet lost.
(Five women’s teams remain unbeaten in Division I: South Carolina, Ohio State, L.S.U., Utah and St. John’s.)
Richard Pitino, son of the famous coach Rick, took over New Mexico last season, and finished 13-19. But the transfers Morris Udeze (Wichita State) and Josiah Allick (University of Missouri-Kansas City) and the returning Jamal Mashburn Jr., son of the N.B.A. player, and Jaelen House meant improvement was expected. As it turned out, the pieces fit, helped by the relatively weak schedule.
“I thought we would be improved, but probably not sitting here like this,” Pitino said this week.
(For those with shorter memories, Jamal Mashburn Sr. played for Rick Pitino at Kentucky.)
It will get tougher for New Mexico this season in conference play, when teams don’t get to pick their opponents. Tuesday night’s game is at Fresno State, which is 5-8. But New Mexico is only a 4-point favorite.
If the Lobos survive that game and one against U.N.L.V. on Saturday, they will take an unbeaten record into a Jan. 9 nonconference game at home against Oral Roberts, which could pose them problems. Then comes a Jan. 14 game at San Diego State, and that may well be the end of the line: Sagarin rates S.D. State (11-3) 24 spots above New Mexico. Boise State and Utah State should also give New Mexico trouble in the Mountain West.
History doesn’t necessarily favor the Lobos either. Last season’s final unbeaten team, Baylor, lost for the first time on Jan. 11. It lost four more times in the regular season, lost in the first round of the Big 12 tournament, then lost as a top seed to eighth-seeded North Carolina in the NCAAs.
Only twice this century has the last unbeaten team gone on to win the national title, Virginia in 2018-19 and Florida in 2005-6.
As for New Mexico, will it get its first N.C.A.A berth since 2014? Sure, it has a good chance. A serious tournament run? Don’t count on it.
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