Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports
Top-seeded New Mexico aims to start the Mountain West Conference tournament on the right foot by dispatching defense-minded Wyoming.
There weren't many people tuning in to the opening game of the 2013 Mountain West Tournament, but don't take that as a knock against the quality of the teams found at the bottom of the bracket--the contest wasn't even televised.
The fortunate followers of the No. 8 Wyoming Cowboys and the No. 9 Nevada Wolf Pack that were in attendance at the Thomas & Mack were treated to a surprisingly explosive play-in game that ended with a 85-81 decision in favor of the Pokes. The Wyoming faithful had to be among the most shocked, as the Cowboys boast a methodical pace and a defensive tenacity that currently have them ranked as the 18th best defense in the country.
If the top-seeded New Mexico Lobos are to have luck knocking off Wyoming for a third time these season, they might have to rely on a predictably slow, quicksand-mired game to advance to the next round. The two teams last met a little over a week ago resulting in a 53-42 decision in favor of the Lobos, ,making for some decidedly ugly viewing. When two defensively centered teams meet in the Mountain West, it closely resembles the age-old paradox: 'when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.'
Wyoming's leading scorer and leading rebounder in Leonard Washington and Larry Nance Jr. both come off strong efforts against Nevada, combining for 37 points and 13 rebounds. It may come at a dooming time for New Mexico now that the Cowboys' two starting forwards are the healthiest they've been all season.
"It's nice to have me healthy," Nance said following the game. "I think you saw [Wednesday] what we can do."
New Mexico comes off a heartbreaking loss at Clune Arena against Air Force, falling 89-88 on a pair of last-minute three-pointers by the Falcons. While the loss stung the Lobos and dropped them a handful of spots nationally, they had to have been pleased with their offensive efficiency; New Mexico had 29 assists on 34 baskets while recording only eight turnovers. Kendall Williams and Tony Snell had 21 points each, while big man Alex Kirk chipped in 16 points and 11 rebounds of his own.
Even with both teams' offenses beginning to establish some consistency, it's unlikely either team will achieve great success shooting. While New Mexico decisively took the last meeting, they shot only 35% while holding Wyoming to 28%. Even against the lowest seeded team remaining in the tournament, the Lobos will have to stay hungry on both sides of the ball in the brutal confines of the Mountain West.
"Just like everybody else in this tournament, you're not going to advance if you don't play well. This is not a mediocre league," New Mexico head coach Steve Alford said. "This is arguably the best conference in the country. You're not going to play average and win on a neutral floor."
The winner of this contest punches their ticket to go on to play the survivor of the San Diego State Aztecs and Boise State Broncos matchup later on tonight.