New Mexico (15-4) faces their toughest conference road test yet against Utah State (12-7) (no offense CSU). Tip off is scheduled for January 28, at 9:05 p.m. MT. The Lobos are 6-1 in conference play, only one game behind league leader SDSU. The Aggies are 2-5, but don't let the record fool you. Utah State is an excellent team, especially at home where they enjoy a 91.3% winning record. They have only lost one conference game at home this season, and that came Saturday night against this week's #5 team in the nation (SDSU) in overtime.
But if the Aggies are tough at home, the Lobos are equally tough on the road. They are 4-0 on the road in conference play with their most recent victory against CSU in Moby Arena.
Still, this an especially tough test for the Lobos because of USU's raucous student section, "The Hurd" (did you see them relentlessly harangue SDSU players?), and the fact that the Aggies are a relatively unknown foe for modern Lobos. These two teams have not played since 1979 and the Lobos haven't played in Logan since 1962.
On top of all that USU has gobs of talent and can burn up the net beyond the arc; the Aggies are 6th in the nation in three-point percentage. The Aggies are led in scoring by 6-10 Jarred Shaw (15.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1.3 bpg) and 6-3 Spencer Butterfield (13.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.5 apg), who had the overtime-forcing three against SDSU.
Preston Medlin is another sharp shoot averaging 13.1 points per game while shooting 46% from beyond the arc. Medlin also leads the Aggies in assists with 4.1. Kyle Davis lead the team is rebounds and blocks, 8.6 rpg and 1.6 bog, to go along with 9.6 points per game. However, Davis is currently listed as day-to-day. Logan product, Jalen Moore, is also a developing threat (and has an amazing Oscar Gamble afro). Moore had an energetic 16 points and seven rebounds in the SDSU game. When Moore scores, "The Hurd" erupts.
The biggest question for New Mexico this week is the status of starting center, 7-0 Alex Kirk, who sat out against CSU with a lower leg injury. He is currently listed as day-to-day. Kirk is a huge piece of the Lobo's game as he averages 14 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks per game. As much as UNM misses Kirk's offense, they probably miss his defensive presence more. He can take up a lot of space and alter the shots he doesn't block.
If Kirk doesn't play, it's going to put a lot more pressure on Cameron Bairstow (20.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and Kendall Williams (18.1 ppg, 5.5 asp). Luckily, Williams has been rounding in to form as of late. Last week Williams hit 8 three-pointers to average 20.5 points and seven assists per game. Hugh Greenwood is another Lobo who has been improving at just the right time. Greenwood hit 7 three-pointers to average 14 points in his past two games. Greenwood also averages 5.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.
Cullen Neal, Cleveland Thomas and Deshawn Delaney will all have their opportunities to step up in Kirk's absence (or any night really). Neal had a nice game against CSU with eight points and always has the ability to post big numbers. Thomas is a cool-headed player who shoots 84% from the stripe. Delaney is an excellent defender and has become more involved in the rebound game.
I think this game comes down to whether the Lobos can limit the Aggies' three-pointers, and that means jumping out on Butterfield and Medlin. Conversely, the Lobos are going to have to shoot well to keep up with the Aggies and to keep "The Hurd" from getting out of hand. If Kirk doesn't play, the Lobos are also going to have to protect the paint and limit offensive rebounds better than they did against CSU.
USU knows that it is in the lower rung as far as MWC standings, but the Aggies and their fans know that they are better than their record (and I agree). A win over #2 UNM would send the message that they are not to be taken lightly and are still a contender come MWC tournament time.
The Lobos would really like to keep their conference road streak alive and keep within a game of San Diego State. Quite frankly, UNM cannot afford to drop two-games back to SDSU if they hope to contend for the regular season title because SDSU is riding high and looks dang near unstoppable.
And quite fittingly, UNM is following SDSU's footsteps as they play in Logan only three days after SDSU managed a win in overtime. If the Lobos survive in Logan, they let SDSU know that they are still lurking right behind them-in skill and standings-and that the teams' first showdown in The Pit is going to be a fight.
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