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.

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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.

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UW-New Mexico men’s basketball Q&A

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, on Saturday’s game with the University of Wyoming.

Tipoff is at 6 p.m. at WisePies Arena, or the Pit, in Albuquerque.

Follow on Twitter: @GeoffGrammer

Geoff Grammer

Geoff Grammer

Even in a worse-case scenario, could you see the Lobos struggle like they have this season with a 14-15 record and 6-11 mark in the conference?

No. I knew their selection of No. 3 in the preseason poll was generous, but was based as much on the home court advantage the Pit has been through the years as it was on question marks with other league teams. The fact that New Mexico’s two best offensive players, at least projected heading into the season (sophomore guard Cullen Neal and junior college All-American forward Jordan Goodman) never panned out due to injury was a huge blow to the team. Still, the Lobos went into Laramie in January and had every chance to win and be sitting at 7-2 at the midway point of the Mountain West season. Instead, the Wyoming loss really set them down the downward spiral they’ve been on since, which included an 0-for February eight game losing streak. The fact that they’re playing a walk-on (Tim Jacobs) 25-plus minutes per game is about as telling as anything in terms of how razor thin this team’s margin of error was this season, and injuries took that away.

Injuries to Cullen Neal and Jordan Goodman have led to those struggles, but where else has this team had significant shortcomings?

Craig Neal

Craig Neal

Coach Craig Neal’s offense has been predicated on having at least some sort of post offense, be it from the four or five spot. This year, there has been none, though Obij Aget has played probably four of his best five college games in the past few weeks. Couple that with there being only one plus-perimeter shooter on the roster (Hugh Greenwood, who has trouble creating his own shot but is great in catch and shoot situations) and the Lobos offense has just been dreadful at times. More specific to trends in the losing streak are five minute stretches of mental lapses and offensive hesitancy when players seem afraid to shoot or break down on defensive assignments. In five of the last six games, it’s been in the first half when they had that bad stretch. They’ve fallen behind by double figures in five of their last six first halves and it was 30-8 just 14 minutes into last Saturday’s loss at Fresno State before they rallied to make it a 2-point game late. Sometimes those lapses have been in the final four minutes of games (Air Force loss, Boise State loss, Nevada loss, Wyoming loss in Laramie). Regardless of when, the team has still mostly been good for about 35 minutes per game, just not 40.

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UW-New Mexico men’s basketball Q&A

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, on Saturday’s game with the University of Wyoming.

Tip off is at 2 p.m. at the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie.

Follow on Twitter: @GeoffGrammer

After losing so much production from last year’s team, how is this New Mexico squad different than ones from the last few seasons?

Not only did the Lobos lose their top three scorers from last season, they lost last year’s fourth leading scorer (Cullen Neal) to a season-ending ankle injury in the third game of this

Geoff Grammer

Geoff Grammer

season. So while the team knew it was going to be a rebuilding season, though it never would use that term, it wasn’t prepared for just how bad it got early in the season. The big difference in this and past New Mexico teams is the overall athleticism and length on this roster is better than in the past. That has allowed the Lobos to use far more zone defenses than they have in many years (they’ve been predominantly man-to-man defense in the previous seven seasons on the Steve Alford/Craig Neal era). That zone defense is the reason they are still in the title race in the Mountain West. They are one of only two Division I teams remaining in the country to have not allowed 70 points in a game (though they’ve allowed 69 now in back-to-back games). This is a defense first team now that keeps them in games when their often average offense struggles.

The season-ending ankle injury to guard Cullen Neal was tough, but who has stepped up scoring-wise for this team in his absence?

The two leading scorers for the Lobos are seniors Hugh Greenwood and Deshawn Delaney, last season’s No. 5 and No. 6 scorers. Greenwood can be a great shooter when set up well by teammates, but has struggled mightily to create his own shot. With very little help on offense at times, he’s resorted to forcing a ton of shots this season, often contested and often off balance, leading to an abysmal shooting percentage. But when getting help and on his game, he’s dangerous and has already had a pair of Mountain West games with six 3-pointers. Delaney is a slasher who is good when attacking the rim and not settling for jumpers. Maybe more to the point of the question, though, is that everyone on the roster has helped in the scoring department from time to time. New Mexico uses 11 players in its regular rotation and have had multiple games this season with 11 players showing up on the scoreline of the stat sheet.

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UW-New Mexico men’s basketball Q&A

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 9:05 p.m. game with the University of Wyoming at The Pit in Albuquerque. The game will be televised on ESPNU.

Follow on Twitter: @GeoffGrammer

How is the shin injury for junior post Alex Kirk coming along and how much do you anticipate him playing against Wyoming?

He played 19 minutes Saturday against San Jose State in his first game back from the injury and all signs after the game were there are no lingering issues. He felt good so I’d expect his minutes to be more along the lines of 25-28 against Wyoming with him settling in down the home stretch at about 32 minutes a game.

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UW-New Mexico Q&A

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.

Eighth seed Wyoming (19-12) plays No. 15 New Mexico (26-5) at 7:30 tonight in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

Question: Is New Mexico stinging a little bit after losing 89-88 at Air Force to end the regular season, even though it didn’t affect their place in the conference and didn’t drop it much in the polls?

Answer: Not really. It got some good out of the Air Force game in that the Lobos, whose main weakness is their shooting, shot the ball better than they have all season with 15 3-pointers in the loss. They are confident their defense will return to its old form this week while optimistic the hot shooting stroke they found Saturday, albeit in a loss, will carry over throughout their March run.

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UW-New Mexico Q&A

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.

Wyoming (18-10 overall, 4-10 Mountain West) plays at No. 14 and first-place New Mexico (24-4, 11-2) at 3 p.m. today at the Pit.

Question: The Lobos seem to be the most complete team in the Mountain West this season. Can you elaborate on that and, in your opinion, what has made them so good this season?

Answer: Alex Kirk, UNM’s sophomore center, said something after the San Diego State win on Wednesday that seems to have become the team’s unofficial motto for the season. He was asked about how Kendall Williams was OK with going from scoring 46 points last Saturday in a win at Colorado State to making just one field goal but dishing out eight assists in the SDSU win. Kirk said, “You can’t guard an unselfish team.” The Lobos have embraced the notion of a different man stepping up each night and don’t seem to care who that guy is from game to game. That makes them hard to prepare for. When CSU keyed Tony Snell last week in Fort Collins (Snell had 23 points against the Rams in their first game), Williams went off. It’s hard to know which player will be the guy each game.

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UW-New Mexico Q&A

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.

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