Stevens: Lobos Must Defend 3-pointers vs. Spartans
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  01/10/2014

New Mexico Lobos Basketball  -- On The Mountain West Road

Who/When:  8:05 p.m. (MT) – New Mexico (11-3, 2-0) at San Jose State (6-9, 0-3)

On The Air: ROOT (TV); 770-AM KKOB/Lobo Radio Network

GoLobos.com:  Game Story, Statistics, Quotes, Video Interviews

By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com.

On the road, the shots don’t always fall with the same sweet swishing sound as they do in The Pit.  Or maybe not as frequently.

But there is a constant that Craig Neal’s Lobos take with them on the Mountain West highway: honest effort/defense.

And when the 11-3 New Mexico Lobos step in San Jose State’s Events Center Saturday night, the Lobos might be bringing in the best defensive weapon in the Mountain – a 7-foot package called Alex Kirk.

“I think Alex does a lot of things for us that people don’t see in the stat sheet,” said Coach Neal. “He gives us stability defensively that we haven’t had in a long time as far as blocking shots and taking up space.”

For sure, Kirk takes up space.  He is tall, wide and long.  His value on defense was emphasized Wednesday night in Laramie, Wyo., when Cowboy Riley Grabau blew past the Lobo perimeter defense and was heading toward could have been the go-ahead – or winning – bucket.

And Kirk came out of nowhere to swat that shot away with about 14 ticks left to play.

OK, Kirk really didn’t come out of nowhere.  He is too big and too noticeable to come out of nowhere.

He stands tall and ornery in the paint with the same attitude that maybe the Spartans held while defended a pass called Thermopylae.  But Kirk usually comes out the winner.

On Saturday, the Spartans of San Jose State will try to defend their Events Center.  The Spartans are nearing the point of desperation as they carry three MW losses into the battle with New Mexico.

The Spartans have lost to Nevada, Utah State and Colorado State. The Spartans lost two of those games at home.  The Spartans have their backs to the wall and should be defending their home court with the intensity that comes when you feel that cold cement on your backs.

Of course, the Spartans have to stop Kirks and that’s a tall challenge.  This Lobo is a load at both ends of the court.  He averages 14.6 points and 9.5 boards. He is No. 2 in the MW in blocked shots behind UNLV’s Khem Birch, who also is one of the more intimidating presences in the post.

Neal says Kirks does a lot of other things well, too. “He makes great passes.  He makes smart decisions.  He expects a lot of himself.  He has nine double-doubles (double digit points/rebounds in same game).

“Alex has given himself up to make our team better.”

Kirk is shooting 45 percent from the field, a number hurt by his 22 percent from long range. The big Lobo actually is a threat from the 3-point range especially when he puts air under his bombs.  His flat release has bounced off the front of too many rims.  Neal says Kirk has the green light.

Cameron Bairstow has a green light, too.  He is shooting at a torrid 55.8 percent and scoring 20.4 points a game. Kendall Williams averages 18.2 points and 5.1 assists.  Bairstow has 19 blocks.  Kirk has 42.

The Lobos are expected to be in a battle with 13-1 San Diego State for the 2014 title and they both carry 2-0 league marks into the weekend.  Nevada is a small surprise at 3-0.  San Jose State and Wyoming are the only teams without a win.  The Cowboys are 0-2.  The Spartans are 0-3.

The Spartans should come at New Mexico with a degree of reckless abandon.  Again, a product of that desperation factor.  A win over New Mexico – the team picked to win the Mountain – would be a huge upset for San Jose State.

The Spartans are capable.  They are led in scoring by sub Rashad Muhammad with a 17.4 average.  The 6-foot-6 freshman scored 28 vs. CSU. Jaleel Williams, a 6-7 forward, averages 11.7 points, 6-4 Devante Wilson averages 10.3 and 6-9 Chris Cunningham brings an 8.3 average along with 6.8 boards per game.  Spartan Jalen James, a 6-3 guard, had a triple double (12 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists) vs. Houston. The Spartans often win the rebound battle and usually shoot more threes than the opponent.

“We have to watch them on the perimeter,” said Neal. “They have some shooters.”

Muhammad shoots 47.6 percent from behind the line and has hit 49 this season.  He went 5-of-6 from 3-point range vs. CSU. Wilson shoots at a 38.7 rate.  A key to San Jose State beating anyone is how well they do from behind the line. They have taken 406 treys to 281 for their opposition. They have twice made 14 treys in a game and made 15 vs. Utah State. They shot 40 treys vs. James Madison.

One of the Spartans’ weaknesses is a New Mexico strength.  San Jose has taken 325 foul shots and given up 403. They have been called for 321 fouls and have fouled the other guy 279 times.

The Lobos might be favored in this MW contest even though it is on the road.  But the Spartans have a lot of fight in them – especially when the bombs are falling.  They have overcome double-digit deficits in four of their six wins.

“Nobody likes to lose at home,” said UNM Coach Neal.  “We expect a tough battle and we know we have to play well.”