Stevens: Are Lobos Surrounded By Desperate Teams In MW Tournament?

March 12, 2013

New Mexico Lobos Men's Basketball -At The Mountain West Tournament
Las Vegas, Nevada --- Tuesday thru Saturday -- Thomas & Mack Center
7:30 p.m.(MT); No. 1 seed New Mexico (26-5, 13-3 MW) vs. winner of No. 8 Wyoming vs. No. 9 Nevada
On The Air: 770-AM KKOB/Lobo Radio Network; CBS Sports Network (DISH 158, DirecTV 613, Comcast 274) GameTracker, Game Story, Statistics, Quotes, LoboTV

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/

The stakes in the Thomas & Mack are Las Vegas high. This isn't a $2 blackjack table in some dingy casino off the strip. This is a no-limit, back-room game of high rollers and maybe the question at the 2013 Mountain West Tournament really isn't who is going to win?

Maybe it's who is going to lose out?

"I think our league is deserving of five teams right now," said New Mexico Coach Steve Alford, whose No. 1 seed Lobos play at 7:30 p.m. (MT) Wednesday against the Tuesday winner of No. 8 Wyoming and No. 9 Nevada.

"That could grow depending on what happens this week."

But could that number also shrink?

If you aren't the team with New Mexico on your jersey, what happens this week at the MW tourney could be NCAA salvation or maybe an NIT invitation. Some teams will surely take to the Thomas & Mack floor with the desperation of a gambler looking at his last chip.

The No. 14/15 Lobos are an NCAA lock. There is no Selection Day pressure on the UNM horizon. The resume of the 2013 Mountain West champs has a ton of highs and really no lows. The Lobos finished strong, won the race to the top of the Mountain, won on the road, beat Top 50 teams.

The Lobos aren't wondering if they will be an NCAA dancer. They are wondering what seed is going to be on their backs when they put on their dancing shoes.

"We need to do as good as we can in Vegas and get the (NCAA) seed that we think we deserve for the big dance," said UNM's Kendall Williams, the 2013 Mountain Player of the Year. "It's a major focal point for us."

Sure, the Lobos want to win this Vegas dance and grab another big trophy. However, a favorable seed for the next dance also is motivation. But what are the rest of the MW teams thinking?

If you are Boise State or San Diego State at 21-9 and 9-7 in league play, do you really think you are a lock to go NCAA dancing, if you drop out of the Thomas & Mack after a single game. Those seven league losses do not look good even in a league as tough as the Mountain.

And one of those teams will drop out of this tourney. Boise and SDSU play each other at 10 p.m. (MT) Wednesday in the Mack. The winner is expected to advance to play the Lobos. Would you like to have ten losses on your resume and go one-and-done in the Mack?

You kind of figure that the UNLV Rebels will like their NCAA odds more if they can notch a single win in their home gym. The Rebs have a national reputation. They once won a NCAA title. But they are 23-8 and have six league losses. It might behoove the Rebels to push their way at least into the Mountain semis.

The four Mountain team with the best shot at joining New Mexico in the NCAA bracket are Colorado State, UNLV, Boise State and San Diego State. Still, you have to figure those teams would be happier if they did not fall out of the Thomas & Mack after a single game.

It would be difficult to envision an NCAA bracket without Colorado State. The Rams finished second to UNM and own a gaudy 24-7 mark. But the Rams might breathe a sigh of relief with a first-round win over Fresno State.

Air Force, Fresno State, Wyoming and Nevada will play in the Thomas & Mack with an air of desperation. These teams need the NCAA automatic bid that comes with the tourney title. They need to string out a series of upsets to reach their miracle finish.

And they are capable. The Lobos will be either be looking at a run-and-gun Nevada team with a pair of dead eye shooters, or at a disciplined, slow-down Wyoming team that, with a good shooting night, probably is good enough to beat any team in the conference.

"We have played both of these teams," said Alford. "We're comfortable knowing who they are and what they are about."

The Lobos swept Nevada and Wyoming during the regular season. Alford said he might look for either team to make a few changes, but his Lobos will do what they did in racing to the 2013 title.

"We don't have to change things," said Alford. "I think there are going to be some teams in the tournament, as good as they are, who have to change some things. They have to do things a little bit better. They have to be a little more special or put some (new) wrinkles in."

To beat the Lobos, you have to beat a complete team. The Lobos have balance. The starting five has Williams, Tony Snell and Hugh Greenwood on the edge. The inside has 7-foot Alex Kirk and 6-foot-9 Cameron Bairstow. The Lobos can beat you inside or outside, but they prefer to combine both elements of their game.

"Both those bigs have been terrific. They haven't just been OK," said Alford. "We're obviously our most dominate when we are big-big."

A nice thing about UNM's big-big look is that it doesn't hurt the Lobos defensively. Kirk takes care of the opposition's post muscle inside and Bairstow's foot work allows him to guard a more mobile forward. Heck, Bairstow can even defend some big guards.

The Lobos' defense on the perimeter is outstanding behind Greenwood, Snell and Williams - and there is good defensive help coming off the bench.

"Defense wins games," said Snell.

Said Alford: "If we are going to advance in the conference or advance in the NCAA Tournament, we have to be the defensive team we have been all year. If we're not, then we're not going to advance. It's that simple."

"This is not a mediocre league. You are not going to play average and win on a neutral floor. You have to play well."

Tony Snell

Cameron Bairstow


Probable StartersHTPositionSeason Statistics
10 - Kendall Williams 6-3Guard14.0 Pts. - 5.0 Asts.
21 - Tony Snell 6-7Wing12.1 Pts. - 2.9 Asts.
53- Alex Kirk 7-0Center12.1 Pts. - 8.2 Rebs.
03 - Hugh Greenwood 6-3Guard7.3 Pts. - 5.0 Rebs.
41 - Cameron Bairstow 6-9Post9.1 Pts. - 5.6 Rebs.

The NM BenchHTPositionSeason Statistics
04 - Chad Adams 6-6Forward4.8 Pts. - 3.1 Rebs.
13 - Jamal Fenton 5-9Guard3.8 Pts. - 1.4 Asts.
40 - Demetrius Walker (suspended) 6-2Guard5.0 Pts. - 1.2 Rebs.
01 - Cleveland Thomas 6-3Guard1.1 Pts. - 0.7 Rebs.
23 - Nick Banyard 6-8Forward0.9 Pts. - 1.4 Rebs.
02 - Chris Perez 6-1Guard1.0 Pts. - 0.0 Rebs.
24 - Kory Alford 6-4Guard0.1 Pts. - 0.1 Rebs.

Coaches: Steve Alford (head), Craig Neal, Duane Broussard, Drew Adams