Stevens: Lobos Jump Into NCAA Pool Vs. Run-Gun 49ers & Casper Ware

March 14, 2012

New Mexico Lobos -- NCAA West Region -- Portland, Oregon

Who: No. 5 New Mexico (27-6) vs. No. 12 Long Beach State (25-8)
When: Thursday, March 15 -- First Session (Approximately 2:10 p.m. Mountain Time tip-off)
Where: Portland, Ore. - The Rose Garden
On The Air: TBS-TV (Brian Anderson, Dan Bonner, Jenn Hildreth); 770-AM KKOB
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By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

The mystique, the mystery, the suspense, the drama, the twists and turns of the NCAA tournament descend on Steve Alford and his New Mexico Lobos Thursday afternoon in Portland, Ore.

Heck, even the White House is adding to the drama. President Obama has predicted the Lobos reach their first-ever Sweet 16. This is neat stuff. You could cut the tension of anticipation with a cold knife. Can't we toss up the basketball now! And how come Obama doesn't have the Lobos in The Final Four?

In a way, you have to thank the "First Four" games for dramatically reminding us why this hoop stuff is called "March Madness." `Cause strange things happen - like Brigham Young crawling out of a 25-point hole to win!

The Lobos jump into the NCAA deep end Thursday in a do-or-go-home battle with Long Beach State. So, who has the NCAA advantage in this expected run-and-gun show: A red-hot team whose star is 5-foot-10 or a red-hot team whose star is 6-foot-9 and has the backing of the President?

There are experts of the round ball who will gush about how NCAA tournaments are won by guards and other who praise the worth of the behemoths who roam the paint. If you are looking for a David & Goliath theme in Portland, Ore., you really need to look no further than Lobos vs. 49ers.

The 49ers will carry the David role for several reasons. They will go to NCAA battle leaning on the long shots of 5-10 Casper Ware. They are the No. 12 seed and New Mexico is No. 5. The 49ers are from the Big West and the Lobos are from the Mountain West.

The Lobos' star - of late - is 6-9 Drew Gordon, not exactly a 7-foot Goliath of the paint, but huge when compared to the hero the 49ers will push to the front of the battle lines.

Of course, the 49ers have a chance. There is madness and upsets in the air. The Niners have won 21 of their past 24 games and have been battle tested against teams such as Louisville, San Diego State, Kansas and North Carolina.

The 49ers lost to these Goliaths, but not by that much. They will approach the Lobos with no fear.

They'll get the same back from the Lobos, who took both the 2012 Mountain West regular-season crown as well as the MW tournament title.

The Lobos, on paper and probably on the court, too, have the edge inside because of Gordon complimented by perimeter muscle. He can be a beast and has been playing at an NBA-Take-Notice level for several weeks.

The 49ers have some nice athletes inside, but can they handle a fired-up Gordon? Will they have to double team or triple team this Lobo big man?

"I'm sure there will be double teams," said Gordon. "If not, it's going to be a big boy down low."

In a half-court game, the Lobos probably have the advantage with the inside look at the "big boy down low." But this game will not be in the 50s and will not always be half-court. There is much running to do in the Portland Rose Garden.

"It's going to be up and down," said Lobo Hugh Greenwood. "Both teams like to get out and run."

Said Alford: "This is a (49er) team that knows how to score. It's very up tempo, fast paced, extremely well coached team. So this is a team that presents a lot of problems for any defense."

Ware is the first problem. Ware, like Gordon, comes into the NCAA tournament as the MVP from his league's tournament. He is an exceptional college talent, but he will be looking at an exceptional UNM defense that seems to have a knack at minimizing the contributions of the other team's star

In UNM's last trip into the NCAA wars, the Lobos opened up with Montana and guard Anthony Johnson, who had scored 42 in the game previous to UNM. He went 1-of-12 vs. the Lobos. The Lobos also have the depth to throw several talented defenders in Ware's face. Expect this 49er to be hounding by Kendall Williams, Jamal Fenton and other UNM defenders.

"We've just got to hope that the experiences that we've had throughout the year defensively and what we've had to guard already is good preparation going into this game," said Alford.

Both teams have been prepared through winning and through competition - and through tradition. The 49ers have made the NCAA bracket nine times: 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1977, 1993, 1995 and 2007. The 49ers head man, Dan Monson, is taking his third team to the NCAA. He led Gonzaga to the Elite Eight in 1999 and took Minnesota to the first round in 2005.

The 49ers probably have to overachieve a bit, if they expect to beat the Lobos. They have no marquee wins and failed several times in battles with the big boys. They beat a so-so Xavier team and a subpar Pittsburgh team, but found success and confidence in the Big West wars.

They will ride that confidence at UNM - and vice versa.

Ware will be a marked 49er because - well, he's good. He got some notoriety in the win over Pittsburgh when LeBron James noticed -- and Tweeted -- about the little 49er. Ware scored 33 points in the Big West title game.

Long Beach's Larry Anderson, the Big West Defensive Player of The Year, missed the Big West tourney, but says he will play against UNM.

"I highly doubt I will be 100%, but I will be really close," said Anderson, the 49ers No. 2 scorer at 14.0 per game. He says his team is playing "a really good (UNM) team, not an elite team."

Ware will be a targeted 49er, but this team did not ride a single back to 25 wins and a Big West title. The 49ers had all five starters named to the All-Big West Team at some level. Ware, Anderson and T.J. Robinson were first team while Eugene Phelps was named second-team all-league and James Ennis was an honorable mention selection.

Likely this will be a game in which tempo control won't matter much. Both teams will be running. "Both of us have up-tempo teams," said 49er Coach Don Monson. "There are going to be 10 great athletes on that floor."

True, but the Lobos will have the biggest one.