UW at New Mexico men’s basketball Q&A

Here is my question-and-answer session with Geoff Grammer, who covers New Mexico men’s basketball for the Albuquerque Journal, about Saturday’s game with Wyoming.

Tip off is at 2 p.m. MT at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M.

Follow on Twitter: @GeoffGrammer

Geoff Grammer

Geoff Grammer

After losing four straight heading into conference play, New Mexico ripped off three straight wins before a loss at UNLV Tuesday. Are the Lobos a MW contender in your opinion right now?

The Lobos can contend for a Mountain West title, but their margin for error is pretty slim. I’d probably predict them at this point to finish more along the third or fourth spot in the standings by season’s end. They have three very effective offensive weapons in Elijah Brown, Tim Williams and Cullen Neal and a couple of other very valuable pieces in the starting lineup that, depending on match-ups, can really cause problems on defense for opposing teams due to their length (Obij Aget is a 7-1 shot blocking center and Sam Logwood is a 6-7 guard). But the team doesn’t have much consistency off the bench, has lost for the year three post players between 6-foot-9 and 7-foot-1 and can get taken out of their tempo at times, forcing them into far too many careless turnovers. Basically, the team’s good is good enough to contend, but I’ve also seen their bad and that’s what keeps them probably right below the threshold of being a true contender this season. The good news for New Mexico is it doesn’t have a senior on scholarship and start three sophomores and two juniors. The Lobos are sort of building toward making a run next season.

In your mind, how has sophomore guard Cullen Neal played so far this season coming off the ankle injury that forced him to miss nearly all of last season?

There is no bigger lighting rod in the Lobo basketball world than Neal. Being the emotionally charged, turnover prone son of the coach who also starred against — and often beat — opposing New Mexico high school teams for four years before becoming a Lobo certainly has him in the very unique position of being a local boy many fans simply haven’t come around to liking. That said, he is a very good player. He does turn it over too much and he does take more low percentage shots than he should, but he also knows the offense better than anyone, is improved on defense (not saying he’s great there, but he’s better than his freshman season), leads the team in assists (and turnovers) and probably doesn’t get enough credit for his role in Elijah Brown’s success this season to become the second leading scorer in the MW behind Josh Adams. The Lobos only contend if Neal is playing well, and for most of the season, he has done so.

Sophomore guard Elijah Brown and junior forward Tim Williams — both Division I transfers — have had big impacts. What have they brought to the table, and have they lived up to coach Craig Neal’s expectations?

There were times in the 2014-15 season when Brown and Williams were redshirting that they would actually be pulled from practices because they were consistently dominating the Lobos starters. Of course that was an injury-riddled, and generally down Lobos starting lineup last season, but the point is the Lobos coaching staff knew they would step in this season and be two of the teams top three players. Just how good, though, might be a bit surprising, especially in Brown’s case. Brown can score and draw fouls with the best of them and Williams, who everyone around the program describes as having a crafty “old man game” in the low post because of his knack for finding various ways to score, brought back an offensive threat in the frontcourt that the team needed. Both have first team All-Mountain West potential.

What really clicks when New Mexico is playing well, and what are some of its shortcomings four games into league play?

When they’re good, the Lobos are running and gunning. They lead the league in possessions per game and score a high percentage of their points in transition. They have good outside shooters and two solid (one very good) low post players in Williams and Obij Aget. The team’s defense has been mostly good and often starts that transition. Teams often have a pick your poison decision to make in terms of who to try and stop offensively between Brown, Williams and Neal. That said, when they’re bad, they’re pretty bad (see their Dec. 19 home collapse to a bad Rice team, their 30-point loss to BYU and their 23 point loss to Washington State). The Lobos commit far too many turnovers and, while they’ve been better recently against full court press, overall it’s safe to say this has been a team unable to handle full court pressure very well and has often struggled just getting the ball inbounds against a press. They are an inexperienced team, both in terms of overall college playing experience and, more specifically, in terms of playing together.

How do you see Saturday’s game with Wyoming unfolding? Most teams have tried to slow down guard Josh Adams and make other guys beat them. Is that the plan of attack in this game, and who do you see winning?

Josh Adams

Josh Adams

Adams will be the third player (and fourth game) New Mexico has played who is currently in the top 10 the nation in scoring (Oral Roberts’ Obi Emegana scored 25 points against the Lobos on 8-of-21 shooting and New Mexico State’s Pascal Siakam has played New Mexico twice, averaging 22 points per game). All three previous games, New Mexico didn’t overcompensate its defense to slow down the star player and all three were comfortable wins. That doesn’t mean New Mexico is embracing a “let him get his and stop everyone else” mentality, but it just hasn’t changed up what it does from a team defensive standpoint too much based on any one player. I don’t think the Lobos will on Saturday versus Wyoming, either. Based on personnel, New Mexico should win the game, especially seeing as how it’s a home game. But the Lobos have also been prone to really struggling when they can’t dictate the tempo on their own terms and there has been no better team in the MW as consistently dictating tempo than Wyoming in recent years. If New Mexico handles that without frustration, it should win comfortably by eight to 10 points. If Wyoming frustrates them, it could be a final shot type of game with either team having a shot at the win.

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Cowboys game day

Game: Wyoming (9-9 overall, 2-3 Mountain West) at New Mexico (10-7, 3-1)

When: 2 p.m. Saturday

Where: The Pit, Albuquerque, N.M.

TV: CBS Sports Network

Radio: KFBC (1240 AM) Cheyenne; KCGY (96.1 FM) Laramie