WyoSports senior editor Robert Gagliardi did a question-and-answer session with Geoff Grammer, who covers New Mexico men’s basketball for the Albuquerque Journal about Wednesday’s game with the University of Wyoming at the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie. Tip-off is at 7 p.m.
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What are the major changes — good or bad — in the program now that Craig Neal is the coach after he replaced Steve Alford?
The Lobos do an awful lot of the same things. They had worked together for nine years, so it would make sense that they were on the same page on many practice drills and in-game philosophies to a certain extent. In general, Neal is far more animated and wears his emotions on his sleeve — good and bad. He speaks off the cuff and when he’s happy, he gushes over players more than Alford did and when he’s mad he tends to call people out more than Alford did. He says what’s on his mind and moves on. As for on the court, the defense has taken a bit of a hit as the players are still getting used to new associate head coach Lamont Smith, who runs the defense as Alford used to, but he has shown signs of them trending toward being pretty good again soon. On offense the players, at least the four returning starters, are more free to freelance if and when warranted. They get out and run more and create in the open court in transition when possible.
The Lobos played a good nonconference schedule but fell out of the top 25 with a few losses. Was that expected or was there a sense of disappointment with that?
There are mixed emotions about the non-conference. The expectations were so high entering the season that fans and those around the program in general were upset with dropping out of the polls, but in hindsight people seem to have realized a neutral court loss to Massachusetts (No. 2 RPI) and what the NCAA considered a road loss in Kansas City, Mo., to Kansas (No. 1 RPI) weren’t that bad. But there is no getting around the team’s third loss, a home defeat to instate rival New Mexico State (RPI 56) 14 days after beating the Aggies in Las Cruces, N.M., hurt the program and the perception of the program to national voters. NMSU is a solid team that will be favored in every game the rest of the season, but they had won just two of the previous 13 games in the rivalry.
Kendall Williams was the MW Player of the Year last season. How has he performed this year and is he having another one of those type of seasons?
I think Williams is playing better than he did last season when he won the MW Player of the Year. He’s playing more under control, taking fewer bad shots, scoring more and leading the league in assists. Considering he’s fifth in the league in scoring and first by a comfortable margin in assists. That’s an awful lot of offense he’s responsible for and if not for having two big men on his team having great first halves of the season, he’d be getting a lot more attention.
Post Alex Kirk gets a lot of attention, and he should, but Cameron Bairstow seems to be really coming into his own. Has anything changed with him or his game?
Bairstow is the hardest worker I’ve covered. His progression has been steady, but his confidence began to get to its current level when he was permanently inserted into the starting lineup for last year’s game in Laramie. From that point on, he was a different player, being named to the MW All-Tournament team before leading the Australian World University Games team to the nation’s first-ever international medal this summer (a silver) in Russia, including dominating a Team USA team with several All-Americans and his Lobos teammate Alex Kirk. Specifically to his on-court production, Bairstow’s first step is so much better than people realize. To be blunt, he doesn’t look as fast as he’s become and now he’s drawing fouls like crazy. He drew 14 fouls in Saturday’s win over Colorado State and his 9.1 free throw attempts per game is second in the league to only to Kendall Williams.
Aside from Larry Nance Jr. Wyoming is weak in the post in terms of production and depth. Does New Mexico exploit that Wednesday and how do you see this game unfolding?
UNM will always go to the post early and often in games. While Neal says he likes to get out and run more than in years past, he’s a firm believer in doing so with two big men and running his offense through the post. Even if a team has depth in the post, the Lobos would attack the frontcourt. With Wyoming not having much depth there, expect the Lobos to attack it even more. Foul trouble is a key. The Lobos like getting opposing bigs in foul trouble, but when one of their two bigs gets into foul trouble the whole offense seems to change. I think the Lobos will be too much for Wyoming because of the play in the paint, and if the Cowboys are able to take that away, Williams has a good chance to take over as well. Working in Wyoming’s favor, though, is the fact that UNM hasn’t been very good defending the 3-pointer this season.