After a close win over Wyoming, the New Mexico Lobos (11-3) continue their road trip to take on the San Jose State Spartans (6-9). The game tips off Saturday night at 9:00 p.m. MT. The Lobos are 2-0 in conference play while the Spartans are 0-3; so both teams have a lot to gain and a lot to lose.
The Lobos have defeated Colorado State and Wyoming to remain undefeated in conference play. The most recent game in Wyoming went into overtime where the Lobos got key shots from Cleveland Thomas and a potentially game-winning block from Alex Kirk. "I think Alex does a lot of things for us that people don't see in the stat sheet," said Lobo coach Craig Neal. "He gives us stability defensively that we haven't had in a long time as far as blocking shots and taking up space."
The Spartans, on the other hand, have suffered losses against Nevada, Utah State, and Colorado State, but the last two games were lost by one and two points, respectively. And in those games Rashad Muhammad has revealed his scoring ability, putting up 20 against Utah State and an impressive 28 versus Colorado State. On the season Muhammad averages 17.4 points and 2.9 rebounds.
Backing up Muhammad is Jaleel Williams, averaging 11.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. Next is Devante Wilson who averages 10.3 points and 4.2 rebounds. The Spartan's leading rebounder is Chris Cunningham averaging 6.8 rebounds and 8.3 points.
San Jose's main threat is the deep ball. The Spartans rank in the top-five in three three-point shooting categories nationally (through Jan. 5). San Jose is third in three-point field goal attempts at 387 (Youngstown State #1 at 414), fourth in three-point field goals made at 142 (Creighton #1 at 159) and fifth in three-point field goals per game at 10.1 (Charleston Southern #1 at 11.6). Unfortunately, the Lobos are next to last in the MWC in defending the three. They will have to do better than that against the Spartans.
By now most teams in the Mountain West know of New Mexico's "big three," Cameron Bairstow (20.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Kendall Williams (18.2 ppg, 5.1 apg), and Alex Kirk (14.6 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 3.0 bpg). Hugh Greenwood is back after a wrist injury. He only averages 4.9 points per game, but his awareness and control are essential for the Lobos.
Teams are starting to take note of Cullen Neal, Deshawn Delaney, and Cleveland Thomas. Neal is fearless (sometimes too much so) and has the ability to shoot the lights out. Delaney is ridiculously athletic and has started to find his stroke. Thomas is tough and stable, he cooly made four three-throws in overtime against Wyoming to ice the game.
The Lobos are favored to win this match, but the Spartans have the talent to make this a battle, especially if the three balls are dropping. Also, the Spartans are kind of cornered at the moment. A loss tonight would drop them to 0-4 in the conference, a nearly insurmountable deficit in a league this competitive. San Jose might play like a team with nothing to lose, a team on the edge. Not a reckless abandon, but with a type of desperation.
The Lobos, however, will want to keep their cool and take care of business. They are ranked 20th in the NCAA's RPI. They would like to hold on to that or rise a bit. Not to mention, a loss against the struggling Spartans would do what most losses by the Lobos do: inflict doubt amongst the selection committee and seriously perturb supporters (who are an entitled lot).
A win would keep the Lobos undefeated in conference play after two road games, not an easy feat. There are two other undefeated teams in the MWC, Nevada (3-0) and San Diego State (2-0). For New Mexico to remain a contender in the regular season title, they need to win this one. And, as I keep repeating, the better the record for New Mexico, the more exciting the eventual match-up against San Diego State becomes.
New Mexico will have to contain Muhammad and guard the perimeter better than they have been. Expect the Lobos to get the ball in the paint. Bairstow has been playing at another level lately and I don't think the Spartans will have an answer.
- LIVE VIDEO: New Mexico at San Jose State, Saturday 10 p.m. ET
- LIVE VIDEO: Fresno State at Colorado State, Saturday 7 p.m. ET
- New Mexico vs. Wyoming Final Score: Lobos win, 72-69
- LIVE VIDEO: Utah State at Nevada, Saturday 8 p.m. ET
- 2014 Wyoming football recruiting: Cowboys land commitment from QB Aaron Young