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Nevada Basketball opponent preview and prediction: New Mexico Lobos

NCAA Basketball: New Mexico at Air Force Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Mountain West Tournament is finally upon us! Each team is 0-0 with a chance (some better than others) to make an NCAA Tournament!

The 8-seeded Nevada Wolf Pack and 9-seeded New Mexico Lobos literally tip-off the tourney — held in Las Vegas, Nev. — on Wednesday, March 9 at 11 a.m. PT. Each of the three first round games can be streamed on the Mountain West Network.

The winner of Wednesday’s game goes onto to face top-seeded Boise State on Thursday at noon.

The Wolf Pack, finishing 6-12 in Mountain West play, had a Mountain West slate full of streaks. At one point, it strung together six straight losses — one game shy of tying its worst stretch since 2014-15 — before rattling off three straight wins. It followed suit by losing four straight to conclude its significantly underwhelming regular season.

New Mexico’s path wasn’t much different, either.

It began the Mountain West slate with seven straight losses. It then won four of their next five — including a 75-66 victory against then-No. 22-ranked Wyoming in The Pit in mid-February — though it ended the regular season with losses in four of its final six games. The Lobos did, however, knock off red-hot UNLV in its regular season finale, 76-67.

Nevada played New Mexico just one time this season — which happened to be their conference opener on New Year’s Day — resulting in a 79-70 Wolf Pack victory. Nevada leads the all-time series 11-7.

Wednesday pits Nevada’s third-year head coach Steve Alford against New Mexico for the sixth time; Alford coached at New Mexico for six years (2007-13), where he compiled a 155-52 record. He has yet to lose in five meetings against his old squad.

Can Alford and Nevada make it six straight? Let’s dive into the matchup and find out!

Matchup: No. 8 Nevada (12-17, 6-12 MW) vs. No. 9 New Mexico (13-18, 5-12 MW)

When: Wednesday, March 9 at 11:00 a.m. PT

Where: Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nev.

TV/Online: Mountain West Network

Spread: Nevada -6

Money line: Nevada -260, New Mexico +220

Last Meeting: Nevada won 79-70 (Jan. 1, 2022)

Matchup History: Nevada leads 11-7

Breakdown:

Both teams have reliable backcourts that’s produced fruitful results for the majority of the season.

For the Lobos, it’s behind former Arizona State transfer Jaelen House — one of the quickest players in the conference — and Jamal Mashburn Jr., the son of former NBA player Jamal Mashburn. Both of whom — along with Nevada’s Grant Sherfield and Desmond Cambridge — were named to the All-Mountain West third team on Tuesday.

Mashburn tops the team in scoring at 18.3 points per game, doing so on 43.1 percent shooting and 33.3 percent from 3-point range. House, the son of former NBA guard Eddie House, leads the team in steals and assists, averaging 2.2 and 4.4, respectively.

His 2.2 steals per contest leads the Mountain West; his 66 total steals is 16 more than anyone else in the Mountain West. House is second in scoring at 16.9 points per game, shooting 41.6 percent form the floor and 32.2 percent from 3-point range.

Both Mashburn and House get to the free-throw line a healthy amount; both average over 4.5 free throws per game with over a 30.0 percent free-throw rate (free throw attempts per field goal attempt). When he gets there, House is arguably the best free throw shooter in the conference, knocking down 88.7 percent of his five charity stripe attempts per contest.

In total, the Lobos rank sixth in the Mountain West in offense, though it sports the second-worst defense, only ahead of San Jose State, per Ken Pom. Nevada, the conference’s seventh-best offense and fourth-worst defense, are led by Cambridge and Sherfield.

Sherfield has been one of the conference’s most productive point guards this season. He’s posted averages of 18.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 6.5 assists across 26 contests, shooting 42.7 percent from the floor, 34.1 percent from 3-point range and 86.4 percent from the free-throw line.

In the Wolf Pack’s 12 wins this season, Sherfield’s averaged 22.1 points and 7.2 assists on 50.0/46.6/85.3 shooting splits — pretty good statistical marks, eh?

Cambridge’s averaging 16.3 points on 43.2 percent shooting, including 36.8 percent from distance on the season. He’s third on the team in rebounding (5.3 rpg) and assists (1.9 apg), second in blocks (1.2 bpg) while posting a team-most 1.7 steals per game.

As the year has taken course, Nevada’s utilized its two 7-foot bigs in Warren Washington (when healthy) and Will Baker more often. Wahsington’s tallying 10.4 points and 6.6 rebounds — including 11.5 points and 8.3 rebounds in four games since returning from injury. Baker’s tallying 11.7 points with 5.1 boards on 54.2 percent shooting, including 39.7 percent from distance in 29 games (26 starts).

Prediction:

CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein reported Wednesday morning that New Mexico’s Jay Allen-Tovar (ankle) will play. The 6-foot-9 forward has averaged 8.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. He’s also one of two Lobo players 6’9” and above that plays in their regular rotation — the Wolf Pack possess a massive size advantage. While Nevada has been marginally more efficient from distance of late — hitting 38.6 percent of its triples over their last 10 games — it has been one of the conference’s most prolific teams at scoring inside the arc (51.9 percent of points come from 2s, 2nd most in MWC). If the Pack can overwhelm the Lobos with their size while limiting transition and 3-point opportunities, it should be able to win this game. The 8-seed has gone 8-7 in the opening round since the inception of the tournament, so the results in the 8-9 game have been at a near 50-50 split. But on an in-state neutral court where the team has a fresh start, I’ll give the Wolf Pack the benefit of the doubt. Nevada 73, New Mexico 68 (Season record: 19-10)