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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico was almost an afterthought when play began in the Mountain West Conference.
The Mountain West, which ended up with the country's top ranking in terms of RPI, begins its conference tournament Tuesday in Las Vegas with the Lobos coming in as regular-season champions and looking to add some more hardware.
"We're a lot more confident since we're regular-season champions," said junior forward Tony Snell, who is among the team's scoring leaders with 12.1 points per game. "We feel really confident that we can be tournament champions again and make it far in the NCAA."
Although an NCAA bid is virtually guaranteed for the No. 15 Lobos, they are not overlooking the importance of the conference tournament.
"We need to do as good as we can in Vegas to get the seed that we think we deserve and should get for the Big Dance," said conference player of the year Kendall Williams, a junior guard averaging 14 points and 4.8 assists. "It's a major focal point for us to go in there and compete and look as good as we can and hopefully win it so we can get the seed in the Dance that we need."
Although Williams earned the individual accolades, it was a testament to the team's overall depth that each starter was recognized. Former Los Alamos Hilltopper Alex Kirk was second-team all-MWC and on the all-defensive team. Snell landed on the third team, while Hugh Greenwood and Cameron Bairstow were honorable mentions.
And that right there is what makes the Lobos so difficult, said coach Steve Alford, who earned his third Mountain West coach of the year honor.
"Our starting five has been tremendous," he said. "Our starting five is a special group that has won championships before. And all we did was lead it from wire to wire."
The Lobos don't necessarily shoot at a high percentage but their in-your-face defense has been dominant — a formula Alford says they need to stick with this week.
"If we're going to win the conference tournament or advance in the NCAA tournament, we have to be the defensive team we have been all year," he said. "If we're not, we're not going to advance. It's really that simple."
It's a mindset the players have grasped from the outset of the season.
"We emphasize that defense wins games so I try to do the best I can to play the best I can on the defensive side," Snell said. "I try to use my length to disturb the opponent."
New Mexico is "a team that works very hard," Alford said. "A tough-minded group. A very unselfish group. A starting five that in my opinion, they have this togetherness and toughness to them because of a locker room that has won some championships."
Kirk and Bairstow both move their feet well inside, the coach said, and the guards are all quick with a long reach, allowing the Lobos to pressure just about any type of offensive set.
So it's going to be business as usual for New Mexico as it awaits the winner of Tuesday's game between Wyoming and Nevada.
"We don't have to change things," Alford said. "I think there are some teams in the tournament that, as good as they are, they have to change some things. They have to be a little better. They have to be a little more special. Or put some wrinkles in. We just have to be who we are. We've been consistent all year."
Still, it's going to take a strong performance for three games to be cutting down the nets Saturday.
"Just like everybody else in this tournament, you're not going to advance if you don't play well," Alford said. "This is not a mediocre league. This is arguably the best conference in the country. You're not going to play average and win on a neutral floor. You're going to have to play well. You have to shoot the ball well. You have to defend it well. You've got to win the transition game, where you're not giving up easy baskets."