The New Mexico Lobos (12-4) go on the road to take on the Fresno State Bulldogs (8-10). Tip off is scheduled for Saturday afternoon at 5:00 p.m. MT.
The Lobos are coming off of a disappointing loss in The Pit against what was supposed to be a slumping UNLV team, 76-73. That loss is going to hurt; good teams don't lose winnable games at home. That's not to say that UNLV didn't deserve it. They did, which kind of makes it worse in a way. The Lobos were also undefeated before that game. A win would have resulted in a two-way tie for 1st place in the conference with power-house SDSU.
But that is in the past. Point is, that loss stings and has Lobo fans and critics questioning the Lobo's grit. Not only fans and critics, but the coach as well."They used to have a killer instinct in them. Maybe it's just that I haven't brought that edge out of them, but I'll get that out of them. They've got it. They're going to find it....they've got to look in that mirror," UNM head coach Craig Neal said after the UNLV game.
Hopefully the Lobos had ample time for self-reflection because the Bulldogs are playing with their backs against the wall. Fresno State is currently second to last in the conference with a 1-4 record. Not only that, but the Bulldogs have plenty of talent.
Guards Marvelle Harris (15.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.8 apg) and Tyler Johnson (14.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 3.0 apg) lead Fresno St. Johnson went off for 24 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists against San Diego State (by the way, SDSU only won that game by eight points). Oklahoma State transfer Cezar Guerrero adds another 14.3 points and 4.2 assists per game. Rounding out the scoring core is the Bulldog's tallest starter, 6-7 Paul Watson (10.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 0.8 apg).
Fresno State unfortunately lost three preseason starters, including current UNLV Rebel, Kevin Olekaibe, who scored 14 points against UNM Wednesday night. The other losses were 7-0 Robert Upshaw and 6-9 Braedon Anderson. So if the Bulldogs seem a bit short (comparatively speaking), this is why.
Which is why 6-9 Cameron Bairstow and 7-0 Alex Kirk should play a big role in this game. Bairstow is having a magnificent senior year averaging 20.4 points (2nd in the league) and 7.2 rebounds per game. Bairstow had a game-high 27 points against UNLV, but was benched early with foul trouble. Double-double monster Kirk averages 14.1 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks. Kendall Williams adds another 18.1 points and 5.4 dimes per game. Point guard Hugh Greenwood doesn't score a ton (5.1ppg), but he can control the ball and adhere the team.
The starters have a lot to prove in this game. Coach Neal says that New Mexico's issues don't end with the team's fresh faces. "It's our main guys," Neal said Wednesday. "It's not our bench guys."
If Neal sounds like a grouch, it's because he is dismayed with the lack of cohesion and tenacity in his team. "There's just a lot of things that really bother me that I'm going to address," Neal said. "[T]he bottom line is what you do as a team."
One good take-away from the UNLV game was that Deshawn Delaney scored double digits for the second straight game. Hopefully the spunky and insanely athletic Delaney can keep it up. Cleveland Thomas has shown promise, especially in clutch situations, and Cullen Neal is streaky, but has the ability to go off on any night.
If the Lobos want to leave Fresno as victors, they are going to have to guard the perimeter more effectively. UNLV shot 53.8 percent from beyond the arc and San Jose State hit 11 three-pointers against New Mexico. If the Bulldogs get hot from long range, this game could get dangerous. Otherwise, I think New Mexico has too much size and strength for the Bulldogs.
Look for the Lobos to bang the ball inside and play with pluck. The starters have to prove to their coach (and fans) that they have the resolve and ability to win. Let's see if the Lobos can bounce back after a deflating home-loss.