Stevens: This Isn't Your Granddad's Air Force Princeton
Feb. 5, 2013
New Mexico Men's Basketball - Mountain West - In The Pit
Wednesday: 7:05 p.m. -- Air Force (14-6, 5-2) at No. 15/16 New Mexico (19-3, 6-1) - Bob King Floor
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
Maybe Lobo Coach Steve Alford should make UNM track Coach Joe Franklin an honorary assistant for the Air Force Falcons' invasion of The Pit. Joe can bring the relay batons.
"I hope it's a track meet," said Alford.
Alford probably will get his wish. The Falcons will step into The Pit behind their Princeton offense and a matchup zone that traditionally slows down the game and reduces possessions.
But not this year.
This Princeton flow the Falcons will try to use to form a logjam atop the Mountain West standing is about as slow as a Joe Franklin sprinter. These Fly Boys can run. Air Force averages 72.8 points to 67.5 for UNM. They have launched 166 treys to UNM's 134.
The Lobos might have to pick it up a step. That's fine with Alford and his No. 15/16 ranked Lobos.
"We want them to run more," said Alford. "That's the way we want to play. They do good things in transition. I think we do good things in transition."
The scenario at the halfway mark of the Mountain West run has a few unexpected twists as Air Force tries to join UNM on the top rung.
Where are the UNLV Rebels and the San Diego State Aztecs?
The 19-3 Lobos are 6-1 in league play and guaranteed a spot at the top -- win or lose Wednesday. Air Force is 5-2 as is Colorado State. UNLV and SDSU are 4-3. Boise State is hanging around at 3-4.
UNM, Air Force and CSU are all 4-0 at home in league games. UNM is the only Mountain team with a winning mark on the road (2-1). CSU has a tough test Wednesday at Nevada.
"That's a good position for us to be battling for on Wednesday night," Alford said of making the turn with a two-game lead over several contenders. "These guys have done some special things."
The Lobos might have to do some special things Wednesday against Air Force. Ditto for the Falcons. It's not easy to win in The Pit and Air Force is 2-30 in The Pit.
"They haven't had success (in The Pit) and that's our goal, to keep that success away from them," said Alford, whose Lobos beat Air Force by 69 points in the two regular-season games of 2012.
But these are not the 2012 Falcons.
They shoot the ball at a Mountain West leading .484 clip paced by Michael Lyons with an 18.1 average. "He's a unique player. There are so many ways he can beat you," said Alford. "That's what makes him a special player."
Air Force's Todd Fletcher has a 10.1 average, Mike Fitzgerald is at 9.5 and Taylor Broekhuis scores at a 9.3 clip. Fletcher runs the show with 79 assists.
The Falcons are not real strong inside, but they can damage you from long range. Lyons and Fletcher each have 36 treys and Air Force is No. 2 in the MW with a .394 percentage from beyond the line. UNM is No. 5 at .344.
"The 3-point line is a concern but they can still post, they can still drive," said Alford. "There are a lot of things with that Princeton that you have to take away."
If the Falcons are hot Wednesday from long range, that will be huge for Air Force on several levels. First, they need to score over a nasty UNM defense that gets nastier as you near the rim. Second, if the Falcons are hot from the outside, that opens the door for Falcons to drive and backcut off screens.
The Princeton is easier to defend when the 3-point line is not much of a threat. This Air Force team makes it a threat and UNM's defense was torched a bit from long range both by Nevada and Wyoming.
"When you are playing a senior-led team, that's a dangerous team," said Alford. "I think they are playing looser. They seem to be having a little bit more fun and they are a year older."
The Falcons do a lot of things well. They look for and find open teammates. They usually hit shots. They take care of the ball and top the Mountain in assists-to-turnovers ratio. They are not dominating inside in big-man production or board work. UNM has that edge.
"We want to go inside," said Alford. "That's not a secret. Teams should know we want to play inside-out. That's where we are our best."
The UNM scoring leaders outside are Kendall Williams at 13.8 points per game and Tony Snell at 11.8. The 7-foot Alex Kirk is the main target inside with his 11.0 average. Kirk hauls down 7.3 boards per game.
A win Wednesday over Air Force is huge for another reason: The Lobos will open the second half of the MW race Saturday at UNLV.
NEW MEXICO LOBOS 2012-13 ROSTER/STATISICS