The University of New Mexico Lobos are off to a good start, but it is a start that was expected by the team and the fans. The Lobos jumped up to the No. 19 spot in the AP poll after easily defeating Alabama A&M and Charleston Southern at home. New Mexico's resolve will be tested this Thursday as they travel to Charleston to take part in ESPN's Charleston Classic tournament.
New Mexico is the only ranked team in the field of eight and is the expected recipient of the tournament trophy. That being said, the Lobos will have a target on their back and taking them out will be a prize in its own right.
First in line is the undefeated University of Alabama at Birmingham (30), coached by Jerod Haase. The Blazers are led by C.J. Washington, an agile 6-foot-8 power forward who averages 20 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Complimenting Washington are a bevy of other capable scorers and rebounders: Chad Frazier (12.0 ppg), Rod Rucker (11.7 ppg & 8.3 rpg), Fahro Alihodzic (10.7 ppg & 9 rpg). Robert Williams (9.0 ppt & 6.3 rpg) and Jordan Swing (8.3 ppg).
"They have size. They are a great offensive rebounding team," said Lobo head coach Craig Neal. He's right. The Blazers hold a +20.7 rebounding margin over their first three opponents and the Blazers have recorded two-straight 50-plus rebounding efforts, 54 vs. Rutgers and 53 vs. Troy. UAB is also an excellent free throw shooting team. In their win over Troy, the team shot an insane 94.1 percent from the charity stripe, going 16 of 17.
But the Lobos can score and board too. New Mexico is averaging 98.5 points per game (7th in the nation) and 43.0 boards per game, holding a +18.5 rebounding edge over its opponents. The Lobos are led in scoring by senior forward Cameron Bairstow, who has scored an average of 25.5 points per game through the first two contests. Fellow big man, Alex Kirk, is wreaking havoc down below averaging 20 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks per game. Kendall Williams, Mountain West Conference player of the year and de facto team leader is averaging 18.5 points and 8.5 assists per game.
The Lobos have strangely struggled from the free throw line, shooting a paltry 65.9 percent (compared to 72 percent last year). "We have to shoot it better from the foul line," Craig Neal said after UNM's 10993 win over Charleston Southern on Sunday. "I thought we'd be a really, really good foul shooting team...."
Neal is also concerned about the lackadaisical defense. "I just can't believe we gave up 57 points in a half," Neal said after the Charleston Southern game. "That's the hardest thing. We're going to have to get back to work because we're not going to be able to win games allowing people to score that easy."
With all that, Neal and the Lobos will probably aim their focus on the three essentials: defense, staying out of foul trouble, and rebounding. Washington is going to be a handful for the Lobos as he tends to attack the basket and is very good at drawing fouls (especially under new NCAA hand checking and contact rules).
"I think any [team] who goes in there and plays well and guards and plays together has a chance to win it. There is no clear cut favorite. Our guys aren't going to have our 15,000 [fans]. They have to learn to play together and stay together on a neutral floor," Neal said.
Hopefully the Lobos can channel last year's improbable run to win the Paradise Jam Tournament. The thenunranked Lobos achieved a seemingly impossible one-point victory over George Mason in the second round of the Paradise Jam Tournament by scoring six points in the final 12 seconds and eight points in the final 20 seconds. The Lobos went on to claim the trophy by topping then-ranked #21 Connecticut.
If the Lobos win on Thursday, they will advance in the winners' bracket to play the winner of Nebraska vs. UMass. If the Lobos lose, they drop into the consolation bracket.
The pressure is on New Mexico to deliver. As ESPN's Andy Katz remarked in his Charleston Classic tournament preview, "New Mexico is clearly the favorite. No tournament title is a given, but the Lobos really have no excuse if they don't win this event."
Don't expect the Blazers to be intimidated by a ranked team though. The Blazers defeated 16th ranked Butler, 6757, in December 2009. The last time UAB defeated a ranked opponent on a neutral floor was on March 21, 2004, when the Blazers downed No. 1 Kentucky, 76-75, to advance to the NCAA Sweet 16. Oh, and that's another thing, the Blazers have something the Lobos do not have, a Sweet 16 appearance.
Like most games, the Lobos do not want to lose this one. A loss here would leave a mark and raise haunting doubts that the Lobos are not the team experts think (and fans hope) they are. Not to mention, Neal would desperately like to avoid conjuring that oh-so-disappointing meltdown against Harvard in last year's NCAA tournament. Absconding back to Albuquerque with the trophy would send the optimistic message that this is a new era where the Lobos manage, and live up to, expectations.
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