The New Mexico Lobos kick off conference play against the Colorado State Rams at 4:00 p.m. MT Saturday afternoon.
The Lobos are 9-3 entering conference play after a very challenging non-conference schedule that included games against UMass, Cincinnati, Kansas, and Marquette (only one of those at home). The Rams are an improbable 9-5, with their biggest win over New Mexico State. The Rams have already started conference play with a loss against #21 San Diego State.
I say improbable because Colorado State lost all of their starters from last year's NCAA tournament team, and then saw Jesse Carr suffer another ACL injury before the season. But the Rams have managed to find scorers in 6-7 Navy Transfer, J.J. Avila (19.2 ppg & 6.4 rpg) and 6-4 Arizona transfer Daniel Bejarano (14.4 ppg & 9.5 rpg).
Besides smarting from the loss against San Diego State, the Rams would love to rebound with a win over New Mexico, the two-time defending Mountain West champions and pre-season favorites. "That target is on our back. We realize it. We accept it," said Lobo Kendall Williams, who scored 46 points against then #22 Colorado the last time these two teams met.
The biggest story line for the Lobos will be the return of guard Hugh Greenwood and scoring distribution going forward. Greenwood was out the last three games with a wrist injury. In his absence, Cullen Neal and Deshawn Delaney stepped up their game in wins over Marquette and Grand Canyon: Neal averaging 21 points per game and Delaney averaging 8.5 points and 6 rebounds per game.
Greenwood is ready to play against Colorado, so one, or both, of these players may see their production take a slight hit. Both Neal and Delaney will have to be mature and continue to work hard while finding their roles going forward.
Otherwise, the big three of Cameron Bairstow (20.1 ppg & 7.2 rpg), Alex Kirk (15.2 ppg & 9.5 rpg), and Williams (18.6 ppg) will continue to play a vital role against the Rams and throughout conference play.
New Mexico head coach Craig Neal expects the Rams to play physical and key in on Kirk, who has recently been frustrated by foul trouble and seen his scoring take a hit. "He's getting the best shot from every team defensively," said Neal.
The Rams' defense has struggled this year though. If they double down on Kirk, they are going to give up even more open shots than they have been (Colorado allowed San Diego to shoot 48.2 percent). But the Rams do score, they are 61st in the nation with 78.7 points per game, compared to New Mexico's 77.7.
Like most conference games, this one is important. But this game is particularly poignant for both teams for different reasons. Colorado is already in the red in conference play. They also got a tough draw taking on the two toughest teams in the conference (San Diego & New Mexico) in their first two conference games. A win against New Mexico in the Pit would send a message that they are not to be taken lightly in the Mountain West and can handle adversity.
A win for the Lobos, especially if the team scores evenly, would establish confidence and hopefully begin to form a template for the rest of conference play. Conference play can be grueling and starting with a win would be comforting. A loss would retard all of the momentum the Lobos have built in their two wins over Marquette and Grand Canyon; not to mention enrage fans and cause critics to resume their repudiation of the Lobos.
Hopefully all of the Lobos possess Bairstow's magnetism. "It's time to get focused," he said. "It's not a piece of cake. The conference is an incredibly tough conference to play in with a lot of great teams. Every night you are playing against a team that can beat you."