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Dec. 26—The moment Lobos fans have been waiting for has finally arrived.
For the first time in nearly nine years the University of New Mexico men's basketball team has cracked the national polls, checking in at No. 22 in the latest Top 25 rankings from the Associated Press. Released Monday morning, the poll has the Lobos (12-0) tied with Xavier for 22nd.
They are unranked in this week's USA Today Coaches Poll.
New Mexico is just one of three undefeated teams still standing in major college basketball and is the only team from the Mountain West Conference currently ranked. Purdue (12-0) remained No. 1 this week while UConn (13-0) stayed at No. 2.
The Lobos open their conference schedule Wednesday night against Colorado State (8-5) in The Pit and travel to Wyoming on Saturday.
This is the first time UNM has been in the Top 25 since the final poll of the 2013-14 season when it carried the No. 17 ranking into that year's NCAA Tournament loss to Stanford. It was Craig Neal's first year as head coach, but the program has been in a sustained funk for most of the past decade.
UNM has had just four winning seasons since then and, until this year's hot start, had not been at least 10 games over .500 since Neal's first club finished 27-7.
The Lobos are one of four new teams in the AP poll this week, joining Xavier, West Virginia and North Carolina. San Diego State is the only other MWC team to receive votes, getting 39 points in the poll to unofficially check in at No. 33.
UNM's fans have begun to take notice. Two home games have had ticket sales exceeding 13,000, although one of them — the Nov. 19 game against New Mexico State — was canceled. Wednesday's game against Colorado State has, as of Monday afternoon, had more than 11,000 tickets purchased while the Jan. 7 home game against UNLV is expected to draw another large five-figure crowd.
One metric used to gauge a team's worth is the NET Rankings. It's essentially a more modern, deeper dive than the older Ratings Percentage Index used to take. As of Sunday's most recent update, New Mexico was No. 14.
Another is the KenPom.com ratings that account for such things as offensive and defensive efficiency, a team's tempo, point margin and strength of schedule. The Lobos hovered in the 300 range during coach Richard Pitino's first days with the program but have steadily crept upwards. As of Monday they sit at No. 66, the fourth-highest in the Mountain West behind San Diego State, Utah State and Boise State.
Long time coming: The 2013-14 season saw the Lobos ranked for seven weeks, including a preseason tab of No. 20 after Neal took over for Steve Alford. They fell out of the poll after an early season loss to UMass and didn't get back in until late February en route to a 15-3 finish in MWC play.
That team went on to win the conference tournament in Las Vegas, Nev., and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The loss to Stanford came on March 21, 2014.
It has been 3,202 days between ranked appearances.
No UNM team has won more than 19 games in any season since then. That was also the last time the Lobos reached a postseason tournament of any kind.
Holiday break: Pitino gave his players the opportunity to take a few days off and travel home to see family and friends following last week's win over Prairie View A&M, a win that capped the team's undefeated run through nonconference play.
The only player not from Albuquerque to stay in town was guard Emmanuel Kuac. The rest of the team got back to town on Christmas day and had a brief workout in The Pit.