Stevens: Lobos Open MWC Title Defense With Visit to Wyoming
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  01/07/2011
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics

Jan. 7, 2011

Lobo Men's Basketball -- At Wyoming
4:05 p.m., Lobos at Cowboys
On The Air: CBS-C (TV); 770-AM KKOB / Lobo Radio Network
GoLobos.com: GameTracker, Game Story, Stats

By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

The message thrown at the New Mexico Lobos as they nudge into Wyoming Cowboys' country might come a little early into the Mountain West wars, but it's not an unexpected shout out.

The shot over the bow of the two-time defending MWC champs comes from San Diego State and Brigham Young and is really a memo intended for any team in the league that thinks it can handle the challenge.

Basically, the Aztecs and the Cougars are saying, "Keep up."

Or fall behind.

That's exactly what the Lobos plan to do as they eye Saturday's MWC opener at Wyoming. It's not that the Cowboys are pushovers. They have talent and athletes and motivation to win in Laramie, especially after they blew a fat 13-point lead in Fort Collins and lost by 13 to the Colorado State Rams.

But the Cowboys are injury-plagued, depth-challenged and it's probably safe to say a few MWC teams will pick up a win in Laramie. Sure, it's early in the league race, but if SDSU and BYU are really as good as their rankings, you simply don't give them an early edge in this race.

Which they already have: SDSU won at TCU, BYU won at UNLV.

So far, it seems that the national rankings do not lie when it comes to No. 6 San Diego State and No. 14 Brigham Young. So far -- a whisper and an eyelash into the MWC season -- it's probably safe to say that the Aztecs and the Cougars are the teams to beat.

For sure, San Diego State is the January favorite to win the 2011 MWC title based on the Aztecs' lofty national ranking and based on their gaudy 16-0 record and their massive front line of talent.

The Aztecs also opened league wars with a 66-53 win at TCU behind 18 points and 10 boards from Malcolm Thomas and 14 points and 11 boards from Kawhi Leonard. The Horned Frogs, who won at Texas Tech, aren't a bad team. The Frogs will jump on a few MWC visitors in Fort Worth.

The Jimmer Fredette-led BYU Cougars turned a few heads by visiting No. 25 UNLV and coming away with a 89-77 win behind a cool 39 from Fredette. A win on the Vegas court is huge. This is a Rebels team that any other year probably would be favored to win the MWC title. A road win in the Thomas & Mack will not come to very many MWC teams this season -- and maybe not even to SDSU. But we'll see.

You can't say that an early road loss will cripple UNM or any other MWC team. The Lobos proved that by dropping their first game of the 2010 MWC campaign at San Diego State and making it even tougher on themselves by losing in The Pit to UNLV.

Magically, almost impossibly, the Lobos reeled off 14 consecutive wins to grab the 2011 league title.

But things change and so have the Aztecs and the Cougars. So far, they look to be much improved from the Aztecs and Cougars of 2010. The word around the league is that UNLV, Colorado State, TCU and Air Force have improved, too. The Falcons have a 77-69 win over Utah.

The Lobos? For sure, the Lobos are good as reflected in a 12-3 record that includes seven games away from The Pit. It's probably fair to think the Lobos aren't as good coming out of the MWC gate as the 2010 team that featured Darington Hobson and Roman Martinez. But it is still a Lobo team capable of scratching out wins.

The key for the Lobos -- and all other MWC teams not named BYU or SDSU -- is to hang in there early, work to get better, and look to defend your home court when Cougars and Aztecs visit. The Lobos are young and still shaking some rust off transfer Drew Gordon, but this is a team that could, and should, be much better in March than it is in January.

Still, the Lobos need to hang around -- keep up.

The Cowboys are better in Arena-Auditorium (or is it Auditorium-Arena?), than they are on the road. At the AA (or is it the AA?), Wyoming is 7-2 and have outscored those opponents by 16.3 points. The Cowboys are led by sophomore Desmar Jackson, who shares the league's freshman scoring mark of 31 points with a Lobo named Alex Kirk. The quick Jackson scores at a 16.1 clip and is second in the MWC in steals with a 2.57 average.

The `Pokes have a nice inside threat in senior Djibril Thiam who scores at a 11.9 rate and hauls down 5.7 boards per game. The Cowboys have four other players averaging from 7.2 points to 10.5 points. UNM has an edge on the bench, but that edge also depends on the flow of this game.

The Lobos are capable inside behind Gordon, A.J. Hardeman, Kirk and Cameron Bairstow, but the Lobo scoring punch comes more from the guard fireworks provided by Dairese Gary (13.3), Kendall Williams (11.9) and Phillip McDonald (11.2). UNM obviously is best when it attacks with balance and depth.

One key Saturday for both teams is throwing out some scoring runs and stopping the other guy's scoring runs. The Lobos and the Cowboys have the talent on the perimeter to score quickly and efficiently in transition.