Alford, New Mexico taking the next step

FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- Last week, New Mexico players Darington Hobson, Roman Martinez and Dairese Gary called a players-only meeting.

The topic: finishing.

In each of Steve Alford's first two seasons at New Mexico, there were moments that turned a potential NCAA tournament berth into a trip to the NIT.

Last season, it was a loss in the first round of the Mountain West Conference tournament. The season before, it was losses to the upper-echelon teams in the MWC.

This season, the stakes are higher. The Lobos' NCAA berth hasn't been in doubt for about a month, but the quest to finish the season with a second consecutive conference title (they shared it last year) and ultimately a conference tournament title has been hanging in the balance. In three of the past four games, including Tuesday's 72-66 win over Colorado State, the Lobos struggled against some of the lesser teams in the conference. But the one thing that keeps them going -- that keeps the Lobos in the upper half of the national rankings (No. 12 this week) -- is remembering the disappointments of the past two seasons.

"It was really, really hard for the guys still here and the seniors last year," said Martinez, the lone senior on the squad. "You want your seniors to go out on a high note. It was tough seeing them go to the NIT the second year in a row. You want to go dancing. You want to go to that tournament. After winning a conference championship, that's always a goal in your mind."

New Mexico entered the 2009-10 season as a national afterthought.

The Lobos lost two senior starters and their sixth man, who was one of the top 3-point shooters in the conference. They entered the season with nine freshmen and sophomores on the roster, lost one center to a dismissal, another to a season-ending injury, and were relying on the play of a junior-college wild card in junior guard Hobson.

"There were a lot of question marks in October and November," Alford said. "Basically, how are we going to survive and how are we going to be able to try and move this thing forward?"

New Mexico got off to a quick start with a string of wins to start the season, including one over a ranked Cal team, which started to generate some votes in both polls. But it was an 84-81 win over then-No. 18 Texas A&M on Dec. 12 that put the Lobos on the national map. That win in Houston made them 10-0 and earned the Lobos the No. 19 ranking in the ESPN/USA Today poll. It also gave the team a theme:

"They Know Now."

After the Texas A&M victory, each player was given a T-shirt that had those three words on it as a tribute to how they'd gotten the nation to take notice.

"They might not have known us before," Gary said. "But they know now."

The Lobos have lost just three games this season (while winning 26). They've notched big wins over ranked BYU and UNLV teams and are two victories away from tying the record for most wins in program history. UNM's win over Colorado State tied a conference record for consecutive wins, with 12, and set a school record with 10 wins away from home.

"We always thought that we could make it to the tournament because we have a lot of talent, but having a coach like coach Alford, he set it out there for us, he made the map for us, and as long as we follow what he wants to do, we thought that we had a chance," Gary said. "That's what we did. We've followed his map and we're getting there."

Alford acknowledges that he's as stunned as anyone at how quickly New Mexico's fortunes have turned around. When he took over, the Lobos were coming off a 15-17 season and were at the bottom of the Mountain West. He instilled discipline in a team that was lacking it and broke up team cliques, forcing players to live together in dorm-style housing.

"We were taking over a last-place team with major academic situations; we lost a scholarship in Year 2 due to APR sanctions," Alford said. "So to have won 24, 22 and currently [26], I'd be crazy if I didn't tell you that we've gone way beyond what I think we thought would happen through three years."

At 24-9, Alford won more games in his first season than any previous New Mexico coach. His 46 wins during his first two seasons were also more than any other previous coach.

Players said they responded to the discipline and bought in to Alford's approach because of his credentials as a player at Indiana and a coach at Iowa. Martinez, the only player on the team who was around during former coach Ritchie McKay's tenure, said the team was looking for direction when Alford came and he provided it.

"Coach Alford really changed the whole culture of this program," Martinez said. "He turned it around and really got us believing that we could really win those big games and that we could play tough and compete for a championship every year."

For the Lobos, the journey isn't even close to being over. They have two games remaining in the regular season, the conference tournament, and then the real prize, their first NCAA berth since 2005.

The Lobos have never won consecutive games in the NCAA tournament. In the 2005 tournament, they lost to Villanova in the first round. Alford went to the Sweet 16 as the coach of Southwest Missouri State during the 1998-99 season, but since then has been to the Big Dance only three times and hasn't gotten past the first round since 2001.

But this year, there's a different feeling. There's a sense of drive and purpose, and it has pushed New Mexico in close games and big games and tight games.

Gary said when the seniors said their farewells last season after losing to Notre Dame on a last-second shot in the second round of the NIT, it stirred something in each player and even Alford. It's a want, a need to be the team that they've know they could be all along, even when no one else believed it.

"We had big expectations and then the guys have done the work," Alford said. "They've listened, they worked hard in the offseason to get better, and we're just seeing guys improve each year. And then going into this year, and doing the things guys have done this year, it's hard to explain. It's just been one of those special journeys."

Graham Watson covers college sports for ESPN.com.