Stevens: Lobos Seek Redemption & Ranking at No. 8 Cincinnati

Dec. 25, 2012

New Mexico Lobos Men's Basketball - On The Road

Thursday: 7 p.m.(MT) - New Mexico at No. 8 Cincinnati
On The Air: ESPN2; 770-AM KKOB - Lobo Radio Network GameTracker, Game Story, Statistics
Up Next: Dec. 31, Lobos at Saint Louis; Jan. 9, UNLV at Lobos

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/

It's a New Mexico Lobo team looking for some R&R - redemption & ranking.

The redemption quest comes from the Lobos' 70-65 Pit loss to South Dakota State, a loss that sent the Lobos on a wild plummet from No. 16/17 to first team out in both polls. UNM was one spot out of the Top 25 in both The Associated Press and USA Today Coaches Top 25.

Unofficially, that's No. 26. Officially, that means you are not ranked.

Obviously, rankings, records, etc., mean more at the end of the season, but rankings do matter. People and ESPN notice you. Or don't notice you.

The good news - and maybe the bad news - is the Lobos have a big-time chance at redemption and a return to national ranking status with their Thursday tip with Cincinnati. The maybe bad news in that scenario is that Cincinnati is ranked No. 8, is undefeated, and is playing at home in front of ESPN2 cameras.

Those are some tough odds to overcome. "I know that they are very, very good," said Lobo Coach Steve Alford.

The loss to the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State was unexpected, but the 12-1 mark the Lobos take East with them is still pretty gaudy. Sure, there was some gravy lost for Thursday's run with Cincinnatti. It could have been a battle of unbeaten and Top 20 teams.

Instead, it's a marque ESPN2 battle of two teams that combine to post 24-1 marks. Not bad - and people and ESPN will notice.

So, were the Lobos overlooking the Jacks? Where they looking ahead to the anticipated battle of the unbeaten in Cincinnati?

"If that's what happened, that's a really soft mentality," said Alford. "We've talked about it all year long: each 40-minute game is the most important game."

The loss to the Jacks obviously hurt UNM in the eyes of the national poll voters, but In the grand scheme of things, the loss to the Jacks probably won't linger. There are too many games and too many opportunities ahead of these Lobos.

You can look at the loss to the Jacks in a two ways:

1- It took away some Lobo momentum and some Lobo confidence.
2- It was an eye-opener and dissolves the pressure of being undefeated.

As Alford said, "Hopefully, lessons will be learned." One lesson from the loss -- if the Lobos want to reach their ceiling - is that they have to play at a high energy and high focus level at both ends of the court. That didn't exactly happen vs. the Jacks and Alford told his Lobos he was disappointed in "the way" they lost.

The Lobos also showed that even if one Lobo has a good or great game, it might be wasted if there isn't more help.

The Lobos have several players capable of "star" stats. But this also is a team that needs balance. That balance should be called on in a big way in the upcoming trio of Lobo games - possibly the most demanding three-game sweep on the UNM schedule.

The Lobos follow the visit to Cincinnati with a trip to Saint Louis and then open the Mountain West wars against No. 17/20 UNLV on Jan. 9.

As Alford put it, the Bearcats are very good. Their No. 8 ranking is the highest for the program since the 2003-04 season. They have wins over Oregon, Alabama, Marshall, Xavier, but maybe the most impressive thing about the Bearcats is something the Lobos also (usually) do: they find ways to win.

The Bearcats have a main gun in 6-foot-4 Sean Kilpatrick, who averages 19.2 points and 6.2 boards. They have a savvy 6-0 senior at the point in Cashmere Wright with a 14.2 average to complement his 3.5 assist average. The Bearcats' 6-3 off-guard JaQuon Parker averages 11.6 points.

The Bearcats strength in on the edge, but they have a nice supporting casts inside in 6-7 Titus Rubles (7.3, 6-3 rebounds), 6-10 Cheikh Mbodj (5.3, 4.8) and 6-8 Justin Jackson (5.1, 5.8). Cincinnati shoots .448 percent from the floor, .348 from 3-point range and out-rebounds their opponents by 11.3 boards a game.

Obviously, the glass work in this game will matter. The Bearcats like to pound the boards and get the ball quickly to their three-guard scoring combo.

The Lobos' game at Saint Louis also will be a challenge. The defensive-minded 8-3 Billikens are on a five-game win streak after a 65-44 win over Loyola Marymount on Saturday. Saint Louis yields 56.7 points a game heading into Friday's game with Southern Illinois.

A win at Saint Louis might even be more important, if the Lobos lose at Cincinnati. UNM does not want to be riding a 3-game losing streak vs. UNLV.

The UNLV game promises to be one of the top "Pit" games in several years. There is no love lost between Lobos fans and Rebels and UNM needs to open the Mountain West wars with a home win.

The Mountain West race of 2013 promises to be one of the best ever. The MW has the second-best conference RPI behind the Big Ten (as of Dec. 23) with six teams in the top 65: UNLV (7), UNM (13), Colorado State (23), Wyoming (28), Boise State (38) and San Diego State (65).

The MW is 86-20 (81 percent) vs. non-conference foes. Wyoming (12-0) is one of five undefeated teams. UNM is 12-1, UNLV and SDSU are both 11-1, and Colorado State is 10-2. The UNLV Rebs are on a nine-game win streak and could be Top 15 when they visit The Pit.