The New Mexico Lobos (16-4) return to The Pit to play San Jose State (6-15) Saturday night at 6:00 p.m. MT. The Lobos are 7-1 in conference play. The Spartans are 0-8. At risk of stating the obvious, the Lobos expect to win this one whereas the Spartans are desperate for a win, and a win over the Lobos would do a lot to boost morale.
The teams' last match-up was in California where the Lobos managed a narrow 69-65 victory. That game was close. SJSU held a two-point lead around the 3:20 mark before Kendall Williams does what he always does, nailed a game-changing three-pointer. Williams finished with 19 points, six rebounds, seven assists and three steals. Jaleel Williams led the Spartans with 24 points and eight rebounds, including six three-pointers. As a team, the Spartans shot 32 threes.
That last bit will be important in this game. New Mexico has had some trouble defending the perimeter, but it is something that coach Craig Neal says he has been working on, especially in transition.
Hopefully that work pays off, and I think it has been. The Lobos gave up five threes in the first half of their last game against Utah State (the 6th best 3pt% team in the nation), but held them to only one in the second half. That could have something to do with playing more guard heavy without Alex Kirk, but either way, it is promising.
Speaking of Kirk, it sounds as though he will sit this game out as well due to his leg injury. This will mark the third missed game for the seven-footer. The Lobos surely miss Kirk's 14 points and 8.9 rebounds, but it has provided an opportunity for Neal to experiment with different rotations, and the results have mostly been positive.
Against Utah State, the four-guard lineup resulted in eight total three-pointers from five different players. Deshawn Delaney also scored 12 points. Not to mention, fellow big man and back up center, Obij Aget, is getting more playing time, tallying 23 minutes against Utah State and recording seven points. "I think we'll be able to play a lot of different ways and cause a lot of different problems for other teams," said Neal. "I think we'll play some four-guard even when Alex gets back. We have some good guards to put out there."
Regardless of the rotation, we know that Cameron Bairstow (20.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and Kendall Williams (18 ppg, 5.4 apg) will be important players for the Lobos. Bairstow is only getting better and stronger with the season and Williams is starting to embrace his leadership role by taking control when it counts. Hugh Greenwood and his previously injured wrist also seem to be improving; he has averaged 11 points in the last three games, including 8 three-pointers. Cullen Neal should see playing time as well. Cullen is averaging 8.1 per game.
San Jose State is led by stand-out freshman 6-6 Rashad Muhammad who averages 14.7 points and 2.9 rebounds per game while shooting 42% from behind the arc (ESPN's Jeff Goodman ranks him 22nd on his top freshman list). The afore mention Jaleel Williams averages another 11.6 points and 6.1 rebounds. Devante Wilson adds 9.8 points and 3.4 rebounds.
As it has been since the beginning of conference play, New Mexico needs to win to keep up with #5 San Diego State University (18-1, 7-0 MW). SDSU has two tough games coming up: one at home against CSU and the other in Idaho against Boise State.
New Mexico and SDSU don't meet up until February 22, and luckily for the Lobos, that game is in The Pit. In a conference where every game is a fight, UNM has to stay on the winning end if it expects to compete with SDSU. A win against SJSU would help the Lobos maintain their winning record and extend their streak to five. Look for coach Neal to tinker with the rotation to find the best scoring/perimeter defending combination.