The New Mexico Lobos (10-3) head north to Laramie to take on the Wyoming Cowboys (9-5) on Jan. 8 at 9:00 p.m. ET (ESPN3). This represents the second conference game for both teams, with the Lobos 1-0 and the Cowboys 0-1. The Cowboys would like to bounce back after a tough loss against Nevada on the road, whereas the Lobos would like to remain undefeated in conference play. Either way, it won't be easy.
"It's always a challenge when you go to Laramie," said Lobo coach Craig Neal. "It's always a fight because his (Coach Larry Shyatt) teams play great defense and they value possessions. We'll have to go up there and play our best basketball."
Wyoming is tied at 64-64 with New Mexico in the all-time series, but has defeated the Lobos just twice in the last 10 meetings. UNM currently owns a six-game winning streak against the Cowboys, including a 23-38 all-time mark in Laramie. The Lobos won all three meetings with the Pokes last season, including one in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament.
The Cowboys are led 6-7 Larry Nance Jr., who averages 16.1 points and 9.1 rebounds while shooting 56 percent. Nance Jr. is efficient and tenacious on the defensive end, he averages 1.4 blocks and steals per game. "He causes problems because of his athletic ability and his length," said Neal. "He can make a jump shot. He is playing at a high level. Nance is one of the best big men in the conference with his maturity."
Riley Grabau and Josh Adams are next in line, averaging 11.6 and 11.4 points per game, respectively. What the Cowboys lack in offense they make up for in grit and fundamentals. Shyatt's teams are known for their gritty defense and sometimes frustrating patience on offense, often hoarding the ball as long as possible before taking a quality shot. The Cowboys rank 26th in the country with a 48.8 field goal percentage, compared to the Lobo's 44.2 percent, good for 197th.
The Cowboy's defense will have to be particularly gritty if they expect to contain New Mexico's "big three" of Cameron Bairstow, Alex Kirk, and Kendall Williams. Bairstow leads the charge with 20.8 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. Bairstow has grown into fierce competitor with a vicious first step; he scored 29 against Colorado State. Williams averages 18.8 points and 5.3 assists per game. Kirk, who has been in a slump of sorts, adds 14.8 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. But if Kirk's offense has been sluggish, his defense is vital for the Lobos as evinced by his 38 blocks.
The Lobos defeated Colorado State over the weekend, but there have been grievances that the Lobos lack toughness in the closing phases of games. The Lobos were up 15 (63-48) in the second half, but allowed a CSU charge to cut it to 74-68 with 1:19 to play. Moreover, the Lobos have been outscored by 11 or more points after the 10 minute mark of 2nd half four times this season. "We can't get up double-figure points and not extend it out. That's when you put teams away," Neal said.
New Mexico will have to play tough a full 40 minutes if they expect to compete with (or be considered worthy rivals to) San Diego, who unequivocally demonstrated that they can close out a game by defeating Kansas in Phog Allen Fieldhouse.
The Lobos have a definite size advantage, so expect them to run the post game. Wyoming knows what to expect though, and they are not a team to be tempted into foul trouble. Speaking of foul trouble, that is something the Lobos will also seek to avoid. Losing either big man completely changes the dynamic of New Mexico's game, and not in a good way.
Look for the Cowboys to swarm Bairstow and Kirk and try to force the Lobo's backcourt to contribute. But with the recent rise of Cullen Neal and Deshawn Delaney, this may prove to be unwise. In any event, Wyoming is going to have to play cunning ball to contain the Lobos.
A win for the Cowboys would do a lot to raise spirits in Laramie. Starting 0-2 in a conference as competitive and the Mountain West is not how you want to begin. Correspondingly, a Lobo win would keep New Mexico in the running for the regular season title, keep fan's expectations afloat, and let the Aztecs know that the defending conference champions are not lying down.