WyoSports senior editor Robert Gagliardi exchanged email questions and answers with New Mexico men’s basketball beat writer Geoff Grammer of the Albuquerque Journal about tonight’s game at the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie.
The first part is Grammer’s answers to Gagliardi’s questions. The second is Gagliardi’s answers to Grammer’s questions.
Look for Q&As with writers who cover UW’s Mountain West foes throughout the conference season.
Question: Aside from San Diego State being a good defensive team, what were New Mexico’s biggest struggles in last Saturday’s 55-34 loss on the road to the Aztecs?
Answer: The Lobos’ biggest weapon on offense this season has been the free-throw line, getting there 25.5 times per game. They’ve hit 377 free throws while their opponents have only attempted 304 (and made just 205). In fact, UNM is the only ranked team in the nation to have actually made fewer field goals than their opponents this season, yet have won 17 of 20 games. Saturday, a combination of SDSU avoiding foul trouble in general and UNM not adjusting to the game officials not calling the game very tightly led to UNM getting to the free throw line only 11 times. They seemed out of sorts on offense all game and I think it started with the fact that they abandoned what they do best: attack the basket looking for contact. UNM did not adjust to the officiating very well, as they failed to do in the first at Saint Louis on Dec. 31 when they scored just 13 points in a game the officials weren’t callinmany fouls. The lack of adjustment to the officiating took them out of everything they do on offense.
Q: Based on that San Diego State loss, how concerned is coach Steve Alford and the team about things right now heading into tonight’s game at Wyoming?
A: There is no more (or less) concern about the Wyoming game than there would have been without the SDSU loss. The Lobos have a lot of respect for the difficulties of playing on the road in this league, especially in a place like Laramie. The reason the panic button wasn’t pressed after the SDSU loss is because the Lobos have a good track record of rebounding from their previous two losses, both of which featured poor offensive performances. When they lost Dec. 22 to South Dakota State, UNM won its next game on the road at then-No. 8 Cincinnati. When it lost to Saint Louis on Dec. 31, UNM won its next game over a ranked UNLV team to open Mountain West play.
Q: How has the play of sophomore center Alex Kirk impacted the team this season, and has his play surprised you and the team?
A: Alford told ESPN before the season that he though Alex Kirk would be one of the best centers in the west, so he’ll tell you what Kirk has done is no surprise. I think it’s safe to say, however, that how far along Kirk has come along after missing the 2011-12 season following back surgery has been a pleasant surprise for everyone around the program. He’s versatile and while a step slow, still deceptively athletic. He is rarely out of position on defense so he’s difficult to score on, rarely gets in foul trouble and blocks shots. On offense he can stretch the floor by knocking down the occasional 3-pointer or long jumper and has a nice variety of low post moves. He’s also very good in pick and roll or pick and pop situations, which UNM uses frequently with him and quick guard Kendall Williams.
Q: Air Force used zone defenses to take away Wyoming forwards Leonard Washington and Larry Nance Jr., in last Saturday’s win in Laramie.Washington scored 19 points, but Wyoming’s inability to hit outside shots caught up to it. Do you see the Lobos playing zone Wednesday or do you think they will play man-to-man?
A: I don’t think Alford will ever go zone more than a few minutes per game. Ever. He’s firmly entrenched in the man-to-man defense camp and rarely deviates. That doesn’t mean they won’t try it some, but not likely to see the Lobos try zone much.
Q: What are the keys for both teams in your opinion and how do you see this game unfolding?
A: Both teams hang their hats on defense and I don’t see that changing. Even in the SDSU loss, the Lobos held SDSU to 55 points on their home court and just 40 percent shooting. Assuming both teams are on their game defensively, that means the Cowboys will have to find more scoring than they’ve been getting in recent weeks. The opening may come if the Lobos guards are collapsing down in the post to help defend Washington, leaving players open on the perimeter. If Washington wants to try and stretch the defense and shoot much from outside, I think the Lobos would take that all game. On the other end, the Lobos need an assertive offensive performance from Tony Snell who is as good as there is in this league when playing with confidence. If the Lobos aren’t getting the calls early to send them to the free-throw line, they can’t go into a shell and quit attacking the basket.
Question: How much have the Cowboys changed since Luke Martinez broke his hand? Have they tried to fill his void with others or gone a whole different route?
Answer: They really haven’t changed in terms of what they want to do, they just haven’t been as effective at doing it. Martinez was their best 3-point shooter (42.2 percent). Coach Larry Shyatt said before the season he thought this team needed to have about 45 percent of its shots be 3s to have a chance to win. However, in the last eight games the team has shot 25.6 percent from 3-point range and less than 20 percent in three of its last four games. Wyoming also has become a lot smaller in the backcourt without Martinez, who is 6-foot-4. Its starting backcourt now goes 5-10 with senior point guard Derrious Gilmore, 6-2 sophomore Riley Grabau and 6-2 true freshman Josh Adams. Those three have had their moments of success since Martinez has been out, but all have struggled as well.
Q: After a 13-0 start in non-conference play, Wyoming has lost four of its first six league games. Where is the confidence level of the team and fan base right now?
A: The team has done a good job of not getting too high or too low all season, so I think it is hanging in there. A lot of fans are concerned now and leery if the Cowboys can snap out of this with games with New Mexico and Colorado State upcoming this week.
Q: What did the Cowboys do to hold San Diego State to nine points in the first half on Jan. 19?
A: They defended well across the board, but especially along the 3-point line as the Aztecs were 2-of-18. Wyoming and held its own on the defensive glass. It didn’t let San Diego State get into transition a lot, and they made the Aztecs guard them in their half-court offense. As San Diego State missed more shots, the more frustrating they became on both ends of the floor.
Q: People around the league know Leonard Washington has been a key figure for the Cowboys for some time, but how different of a player is he this season?
A: Washington is a little more mature, and should be since he is 24 years old. He has bought into coach Larry Shyatt’s concepts and is a very good teammate and team player. Not that he wasn’t last season, but it has improved this season. At times, I think Washington could be less unselfish when he gets the ball down low since Wyoming is an offensively challenged team right now.
Q: Same question for you: What do you see as the keys for both teams to win Wednesday night?
A: Wyoming needs find a way to make more shots, simple as that. Not sure how it will do that against a New Mexico team that poses some serious mismatch problems with guys like Kendall Williams and Tony Snell — based on their size along the guard line — and center Alex Kirk inside. Wyoming can’t get into foul trouble because it is only plays about seven guys right now. If New Mexico doesn’t get frustrated with Wyoming’s defense, it should be able to win this one based on more options and depth it has.