New Mexico guard Tony Snell receives a pass as he cuts to the basket against… (Jeff Bottari / Getty Images )
When Tony Snell was a baby, his mother, Sherika Brown, would put him in a little cart and they would watch basketball on television.
Of special interest: any game in which Michael Jordan played.
Brown also took him to watch games in the neighborhood, and it wasn't too long before older kids were calling him "Baby Jordan."
"I knew he had special gifts," Brown said.
Snell went on to star at Riverside King High and now for the New Mexico Lobos, who have a 29-5 record and won the Mountain West Conference tournament. The Lobos are the No. 3-seeded team in the NCAA West Regional and play Harvard on Thursday in Salt Lake City.
Snell, a 6-foot-7 junior guard, averages 12.6 points per game. That's second-best on the team, though he has led the Lobos in scoring the last five games, averaging 19.8 points in that span.
Snell shoots nearly as well from three-point range (39.9%) as he does overall (42.6%). His high school coach, Tim Sweeney, says Snell's shooting form was always good: "A nice, fluid stroke, a consistent three-pointer."
Even so, while Snell had plenty of scholarship offers coming out of high school, none were from USC, UCLA or other members of the Pac-12 Conference, Sweeney said.
"Sometimes I wonder why those schools don't look East a little," the coach said. "The Inland Empire gets ignored in basketball."
Not by New Mexico. The Lobos' leading scorer, Kendall Williams, is also from that region. The 6-4 junior from Rancho Cucamonga Los Osos High averages 13.5 points and 5.0 assists.
New Mexico Coach Steve Alford said he has asked Snell to be more of a team leader, but that leadership doesn't come vocally. Summoned to postgame interviews with the media every game at the Mountain West tournament — because his productive play warranted it — Snell was clearly uncomfortable.
"We may say we want him to talk more, but I've never been about changing kids' personalities," Alford said. "We want our young men to be who they are. But he's doing a good job in leadership. I'll tell you why. He developed defensively.
"So now, all these guys, whether they're starters or bench guys … they get to watch Tony Snell. Everybody sees him shoot, everybody wants him to shoot more and score more but now they see a guy that is really committed to the defensive end. The defensive end is the unselfish end."
As Alford spoke, Snell hid his head.
Playing defense didn't keep Snell from playing offense, though. He made 24 of his 43 shots in the conference tournament and was chosen the most outstanding player.
"I just have more confidence now," Snell said. "My teammates always encourage me to keep shooting the ball, even when I miss."
About the only thing Snell missed was a prediction. He thought New Mexico would get a No. 2 regional seeding in the NCAA tournament.
"No. 2 or higher because we definitely proved ourselves all year," Snell said.
So Snell and his teammates will have to prove themselves some more.