UNM is Mountain West's best

New Mexico's stifling defense is a trademark of Steve Alford-coached teams. AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

If there's one article of unquestioned faith in college basketball, it's the paramount importance of avoiding "bad losses." In 2011-12, New Mexico has not avoided bad losses.

Way back on Nov. 16, the Lobos lost at home to New Mexico State. The Aggies are actually better than most people realize, but losing at home by nine points to a WAC opponent that's "better than most people realize" is no great endorsement. Even that loss, however, was less damaging than what was to come. On Nov. 24, New Mexico lost in overtime in the opening round of the 76 Classic in Anaheim to Santa Clara.

You'll hear that loss brought up any time the subject of New Mexico arises over the next three weeks. The Broncos currently sport an RPI of 274, and their record stands at 8-17 overall, 0-12 in the West Coast Conference. True, Santa Clara also beat Villanova, and back in November Kevin Foster was still playing, though the Broncos' leading scorer was later suspended for the duration of the season. Even so, the Lobos' November is not where they want the NCAA tournament selection committee to direct its attention.

Instead, Steve Alford would rather discuss his team in the present tense. The Lobos are 6-2 in Mountain West play, and tied for first atop the conference with San Diego State. The Aztecs have been a fixture in the top 25 for weeks now because their November losses were inflicted upon them by the eminently respectable likes of Baylor and Creighton. Then there's also the fact that in the previous meeting between these two teams, in Albuquerque on Jan. 18, SDSU emerged victorious by the score of 75-70.

Now, here's the interesting part. In spite of those bad November losses, and despite the fact they lost on their home floor to their main conference rival, New Mexico has been the Mountain West's top team on a per-possession basis by a very wide margin. Simply put, the numbers suggest that the pollsters whiffed on this one and that unranked UNM is in fact the best team in the league.