Fans of the New Mexico Lobos have had tonight's match up against the No. 8 Cincinnati Bearcats on their radar for weeks. As soon as the Lobos entered the Top 25, the match up (televised nationally on ESPN 2 tonight at 7 p.m. MT) was elevated as the proving point on a two-game Midwestern swing that took UNM outside New Mexico for the first time since before Thanksgiving.
But New Mexico's loss Saturday against the unheralded South Dakota St. Jackrabbits knocked the team out of both Top 25 polls and has thrown skittish Lobo fans into a tizzy. Their concerns are well founded - after all, the logic goes, if a team from the Summit League could beat UNM in The Pit then playing a Big East team in its intimidating home arena is probably a bridge too far.
The Bearcats certainly are no slouches and did not make it their current 12-0 perch by being a bunch of softies.
This is a team that is very similar to the Louisville Cardinals team that bounced the Lobos from the NCAA Tournament last March - no surprise since Bearcats head coach Mick Cronin was an assistant under Rick Pitino in the Bluegrass state.
They're a team that likes to play pressure defense (a D that has forced an average of 16.8 turnovers a game this season) and uses the turnovers and quick shots created by that chaos to run. Like the Cardinals, Cincinnati has a trio of athletic guards - junior Sean Kilpatrick and seniors Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker.
How good is the defense? They're ranked second in the nation in defensive field goal percentage, holding their opponents to 34.6 percent shooting a game. They're also among the top rebounding teams in the country, ranked seventh in rebound margin at plus-11.3 per game.
On offense, Cincy, Kilpatrick leads a three-pronged attack, averaging 19.2 points per game and 6.2 rebounds per game. Wright adds 14.2 PPG and 3.4 assists per game while Parker averages 11.6 PPG and 4.6 RPG.
A key head-to-head match up in the game will be New Mexico's 7-foot sophomore center Alex Kirk against the Bearcats' 7-foot-1 junior center Cheikh Mbodj. Mbodj averages 4.8 RPG and 2.5 blocks per game while Kirk averages 7.5 RPG. Hugh Greenwood and Chad Adams also figure to be big factors on the boards and on defense.
Offensively the Lobos will need leading scorers Kendall Williams (14.8 PPG and 5.0 APG) and Tony Snell (11.6 PPG and 3.2 APG) to produce on offense and also play up to the defensive level they've shown at times this season.
Even before their loss to SDSt., tonight's game was a challenge for New Mexico. But now if the Lobos want to return to the Top 25, they'll need a signature win in a hostile arena against a tough, Top 10 team. They'll get all of that tonight against the Bearcats.