The Lobos are 7-1 on the season whereas the Jayhawks are 6-3. But don't let the record fool you. Kansas' losses have all come against currently-ranked teams (#10 Villanova, #21 Colorado, and #19 Florida). In fact, Kansas is such a force this season that Villanova and Colorado vaulted into the rankings after their victories over Kansas (both were unranked before said wins) . In other words, a win over Kansas garners recognition and sends a message.
Kansas was ranked as high as #2 before its current run of losses. Which brings me to another point: the Jayhawks are going to be angry and ravished for a win. They have lost three out of the last four games, almost a skid for a team like Kansas. And they aren't going to be hungry for any old win, the Jayhawks will be looking for a statement-win. Thumping the Lobos would reestablish Kansas as a tier-one team and help conceal recently-exposed blemishes. But of course the Lobos will be looking for a statement-win of their own, and they know that the Jayhawk's appetite is nearly equal to their vulnerability.
Even though it is billed as a neutral site game, this is essentially road game for the Lobos. Let's just say the Sprint Center (where the game is being played) will fill in as a bootleg version of Allen Fieldhouse (Kansas' famous home court) for Kansas and their fans as the former is a mere 42.1 miles from the latter.
Given the stakes and the location, this won't be an easy game for the Lobos, not to mention the competition. Kansas is led by freshman prodigy, Andrew Wiggins, who is coming off a dominant 26 point performance against Florida. Wiggins averages 16.4 points and 6.1rebounds per game. He seems to be finding his stride with each game as he has averaged 24 points in his last two games.
6-8 Perry Ellis and 7-0 Joel Embiid help out down below. Ellis averages13.3 points per game and hauls in 6.4 boards per game. Ellis is also shooting 60.3 percent from the field. Embiid adds 8.9 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. But his size is a real difference maker on defense. He averages 2.2 blocks per game and can really clog up the lane. Freshman Frank Mason has started the last two games for KU and is averaging 9.1 points and 2.7 assists per game.
On the other end, the Lobos are the only team in the nation with three players averaging at least 18 points per game. 6-9 Cameron Bairstow, who had a monster game against previously undefeated Cincinnati, averages 19.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.
"He's doing everything," said New Mexico coach Craig Neal. "He can shoot it, drive it and is a helluva rebounder. He's physical and he can stay in front of people. He's guarding, too."
Next up is the extremely well-rounded Kendall Williams with 19.1 points, 3.4 boards, 5.8 assists, and 1.5 steals per game. 7-0 center Alex Kirk adds 18.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, and a beastly 3.4 blocks per game.
To be sure, the Lobos might have the highest scoring threesome in the country for a reason. The scoring curve drops mightily after Kirk. Cullen Neal and Hugh Greenwood are next in line averaging 7.0 points and 5.1 points per game, respectively. Cullen is hot or cold and Greenwood has yet to find his shot. Depth could be a huge problem for the Lobos, especially if one of the big three get in foul trouble.
Kansas poses plenty of matchup problems with defending Wiggins. New Mexico has had a tough go defending the dribble drive. Case in point: New Mexico's lone loss came against the dynamic Chaz Williams of UMass. On the bright side, the Lobos found a way to slow down crafty Sean Kilpatrick when they defeated Cincinnati last weekend.
On the flip side of the coin, the Jayhawks will have to worry about Bairstow and Kirk. Bairstow and Kirk are more experienced than freshman Embiid and sophomore Ellis. They should be stronger too. Look for the Lobos to feed the big guys to test Kansas' frontcourt and find a way to stop Wiggins. Lobo role players Cleveland Thomas or Nick Banyard might need to step in to help cool Wiggins' jets. On last thing. UNM sophomore gaurd Merv Lindsay might have something to prove. He transferred to UNM after lettering at Kansas during the 2011-12 NCAA runner-up season. He has not played a ton this season (averaging only four minutes per game), but Neal might let him loose against his former team.
"This is a huge barometer," Neal said. "The challenges keep coming. We won't play like Florida with a 1-3-1. But our guys are competing at a high level. We needed a game like this. We needed the Marquette game. We knew Kansas would be good, reloaded and a major challenge for us. We've got five neutral-court games and hopefully it will prepare us for three more of those in the Mountain West tournament [in Las Vegas in March]."
The Lobos are unofficially ranked #27 in the AP Poll. A win against powerhouse Kansas on the road (basically) would surely be enough to edge them into the top 25 again. After all, Villanova and Colorado achieved a top 25 ranking with their wins over Kansas.
On the other hand, a Kansas loss could be enough to nudge them out the top 25. The most losses by a currently ranked team is two. If the Lobos pulled it off, that would total four losses for Kansas. In the end, there is a lot on the line for both teams in this game. Let's see if the Lobos can build on their momentum and capitalize on Kansas' slump.