New Mexico Lobos Basketball – In The Pit – Mountain West Conference
Who/When: 4 p.m., Saturday – Colorado State at New Mexico
On TV: ESPNU (Dish 141, DirecTV 208, Comcast 281)
On The Radio: 770-AM KKOB/Lobo Radio Network; ESPN Deportes
GoLobos.com: Game Story, Statistics, LoboTV, Quotes, Photo Gallery
By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com.
“It’s back to business,” said Lobo Kendall Williams. “It’s time to go.”
The business at hand and in The Pit on Saturday is the Mountain West Conference and the Colorado State Rams, who get the first shot at putting a dent in the armor of the defending MW champions.
“That target is on our back. We realize it. We accept it,” said Williams.
The Lobos have no choice but to be marked men. They have rolled to back-to-back MW regular-season titles and also tossed in back-to-back MW tournament titles in Vegas. Craig Neal’s Lobos were the near unanimous pre-season pick to make it a three-peat.
For sure, there are several other Mountain West teams with enough talent to make a charge at the throne including San Diego State, UNLV and Boise State.
And for sure the CSU Rams will step into The Pit looking for a road breakthrough to make up some ground after their loss in Fort Collins to San Diego State – the only Top 25 team in the MW.
The No. 19/21 Aztecs threw out a 71-61 win at CSU, so the Rams might have some extra motivation to leave University Arena with an upset. UNLV, Air Force and Nevada also sit atop the MW standings with 1-0 slates.
New Mexico, Wyoming and Boise State step into MW action on Saturday.
“It’s time to get focused,” said UNM’s Bairstow. “It’s not a piece of cake. The conference is an incredibly tough conference to play in with a lot of great teams. Every night you are playing against a team that can beat you. It really is a grind.”
The Lobos take a 9-3 mark at CSU, a record formed by one of the tougher schedules in New Mexico history. “I think they are battle tested,” said Coach Neal.
The Lobos also are rested after a Christmas pause and healthy as Hugh Greenwood (wrist) is back in the lineup after sitting out three of UNM’s 12 games.
“His presence, his leadership, his strength on the floor will be a luxury to have back,” said Williams of his backcourt mate, who averages 4.6 points and 5.2 boards.
Greenwood helps UNM in several important categories, but his absence also helped Coach Neal develop some players off the bench using Greenwood’s minutes.
The Lobos will need bench production over the long grind of the MW race. Most of their point production going into the MW wars comes from Bairstow (20.1), Williams (18.6) and Kirk (15.2). Kirk averages 9.5 boards and Bairstow hauls down 7.2 per game. Williams has 62 assists followed by Bairstow at 28.
The Lobos’ “Big Three” will be the target of every MW defense. Cullen Neal has been a big offensive addition in UNM’s past two wins by scoring 24 and 18 points. He is shooting 45 percent from 3-point range. He averages 8.8 points.
The CSU Rams (9-5) aren’t really a mystery because they have played 14 games, but this is a team that lost five starters from 2012-13.
“They are a totally different team,” said Coach Neal. “They have a transfer kid from Navy who is really, really good and he’s kind of shocked everybody. They are going to play hard and they are going to be good defensively.”
The Navy transfer is 6-foot-7, 246-pound forward J.J. Avila. He brings a 19.2 scoring average into Albuquerque shooting .542 percent from the floor. He brings down 6.4 boards per game. The Rams also get 14.4 points from 6-4 Daniel Bejarano, who is the top CSU board man with a 9.5 average. Bejarano came to CSU from the University of Arizona.
These two Rams have shouldered a lot of the production responsibility for CSU. Bejarano had a career-high 22 points and eight boards vs. SDSU. Avila had 15 points. The Aztecs held CSU to 38 percent shooting and 21 percent from 3-point range. SDSU leads the MW in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense.
The Rams will give up some inches inside to UNM, but Coach Neal expects a physical game from CSU and likely double coverage on UNM’s 7-foot Alex Kirk.
“He’s getting the best shot from every team defensively,” said Neal.
Said Bairstow of CSU: “They are still a very physical team.”
The Lobos have won 12 of the past 14 games vs. CSU. UNM’s Williams scored 46 last season in a Lobo win in Fort Collins. “They probably know more about me than I know about them,” said Williams of the new-look Rams of 2014.
For sure, the Rams’ coaching staff knows a lot about Williams, Kirk, Bairstow and Greenwood. They also know something about The Pit: It’s a tough place to find a win. CSU has lost 17 of 18 in The Pit.
New Mexico Lobos 2014 Season Roster