Stevens: Lobos Run Into Defensive Buzz Saw At Alabama
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  03/20/2011
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics

March 20, 2011

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Stevens: Lobos Bury UTEP Miners In First-Round Of NIT

Lobo Men's Basketball -- On The NIT road
7 p.m. (MT), Lobos (22-12) at Alabama (22-11)
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By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

In a land where football is King, maybe it would behoove the New Mexico Lobos if the Alabama Crimson Tide passions already have turned to spring football.

Maybe that small portion of the massive tide of Tide football fans, who also will take in a hoops game, will forget that they are rolling out a round ball Monday night in Coleman Coliseum.

Maybe those fans will get too much sun on the opening day of spring football and decide to bypass an Alabama basketball team that has thrown out an undefeated show at home in their gallant attempt to prove that basketball isn't such a bad game to watch.

The Tide basketball team has been impressive in Coleman Coliseum and is looking to set a program record of 18 straight season wins when the New Mexico Lobos come to visit in second-round action of the National Invitation Tournament.

"They have played extremely well at home and they have protected their home court," said Lobo coach Steve Alford. "This is a team that poses a lot of problems."

Said Lobo Phillip McDonald: "We have to come in there with confidence. We have to believe we can do it. These guys are really tough and have never lost at home. We have to be tough and confident."

Tough and confident would be good things for the Lobos to pack in their bags, because that's exactly what Alabama is in Coleman Coliseum, which has yet to be renamed Bear Bryant/Coleman Coliseum.

The Tide rolled Coastal Carolina 68-44 using an 11-1 run to gain control of the scoreboard. Alford said a key to snapping Alabama's 17-game win streak at home is to eliminate or lessen those Tide runs.

"This is an explosive team," said Alford. "You have to be able to play 40 solid minutes. We have to stay away from those eight-point, ten-point runs." Alabama has 21 runs of 10-0 or better this season.

In some ways, the NIT offers tougher challenges than the NCAA. In the NIT, you often have to go beat an NCAA-caliber team on their home floor. The UTEP Miners ran into that wall when they visited, and got beat, in The Pit. Now it's the Lobos' turn to play a solid SEC team that easily could have fallen in the NCAA bracket.

However, there is no neutral court here. The Lobos venture into the heart of Tide country and onto a court the Tide protects with both passion and efficiency.

"They are a very athletic team and a team that's undefeated at home," said Alford. "They score out of their defense so you have to do a good job of taking care of the basketball. They fly it down (the court) not to shoot the three, but they fly it down to put the ball in the basket."

That means the Crimson Tide like to attack the basket. The Tide didn't roll out as consistent a season as San Diego State, but there are similarities here -- especially when the Tide is at home.

Alabama, like the Aztecs, likes to score off its pressure defense. It thrives on opponents' mistakes. The Tide crashes the boards and attacks the rim. When they add a high shooting percentage to their nasty defense, they can be dominating.

The Tide held Coastal Carolina to its lowest scoring output (44) of the season. Alabama has held ten opponents to 51 points or fewer this season. The Tide yields 58.8 points per game and holds opponents to 38 percent shooting. Carolina shot 33.3 percent to become the 21st Tide opponent this season to shoot less than 40 percent.

You don't want to help the Tide by giving up transition baskets. You also need to protect the rim against these guys.

"This team is No. 1 in the country in paint scores," said Alford. "That's going to be a challenge. They are not overly big, but they are extremely athletic."

The Tide averages 9.4 steals and 5.3 blocks per game. The Tide had 13 steals vs. Coastal. They are paced inside by JaMychal Green with a 15.8 average and Tony Mitchell at 15.3. These are the Tide guys you have to keep off the glass. They average 7.8 boards and 6.9, respectively.

The Tide went 5-6 early but finished winning 17 of 22. They had a 14-2 run earlier. It's difficult to figure out why these guys aren't playing in the NCAA. "They had a great year and are the No. 1 seed in the NIT, so they just missed the NCAA," said UNM's McDonald.

Some team fall into the NIT field and just go through the motions, playing with no passion or purpose. If Alabama feels that way, it didn't show up in the Crimson Tide's romp of Coastal Carolina. Ditto for UNM vs. UTEP.

Of course, it helps to play at home. The Tide has that advantage Monday over the Lobos, who take to the road without their senior leader, Dairese Gary. The Lobos` point guard saw his career at UNM end with a knee injury in the Mountain West Tournament.

Alford says you don't "make a lot of changes," at this point of the season, but he was forced to make a change at the point. Jamal Fenton got the start vs. UTEP and played a solid floor game, minus the power drives to the glass provided by Gary. "Jamal was terrific," said Alford.

The tempo of Monday's game will be interesting. The Lobos like to score out of transition, but sometimes a running game leads to turnovers. You don't want Alabama to feed off your errors. Alabama likes to score out of transition and is less effective in a half-court offense, but the Tide is not a pure running team.

They also have the athletic ability, like SDSU, to slow down a game with their defensive pressure. You usually have to work and show patience to get a good shot off the pressure of the Tide.

"They are not a team that is averaging in the 70s or 80s," said Alford of the Tide's 66.7 average on offense. "They have been a controlled team, but they are a team that can hurt you in transition because they run so hard off your misses and they run so hard off your mistakes.

"We have to limit their ability to score off our offense. If they are going to score, we have to make them use their offense."

Said Lobo freshman Kendall Williams: "We have to stay tough through thick and thin, like we have all season, and proving our toughness mentally and physically."