After losing three games in a row, all the New Mexico Lobos need is to face an angry San Diego State team but unfortunately for the Lobos the Aztecs come into the Pit on Tuesday having lost to Boise State 66-63 on Saturday a loss that snapped the "streak," in which San Diego State had won 164 straight games when leading with five minutes left in the game.
While it didn't get much national attention while it was going on all that often, but the end of the streak had every one from ESPN to NBC Sports reporting on the end of it. The impact of the loss was far beyond the streak for the Aztecs as they are now in the same position as the other ten teams in the Mountain West Conference as the Aztecs will have to win the conference tournament to advance to the NCAA tournament.
The Lobos on the other hand, come into Tuesday's game in the middle of a free fall by losing three games in a row and five of their last seven. Many New Mexico fans will point to the blown call by Mountain West Conference refs that cost the Lobos a win in Viejas Arena back on Feb. 7 as the start of the Lobos losing ways.
The play in question starter after Xavier Adams was ruled out of bounds on a trick inbounds play and the Mountain West issued a statement stating that they missed the call. However, Malik Pope still had to make the three to tie the game which eventually let to a 78-71 win by the Aztecs.
The Lobos who had won three straight and were just two games behind the Aztecs did not respond in their next game against Utah State got blown out by the hot shooting Aggies.
Since playing San Diego State at the beginning of the month, Lobo fans have become impatient with Craig Neal as they have bad losses against the Air Force, Colorado State, and Utah State. Many have called for Neal's job while and it has been reported that guard Cullen Neal is receiving death threats.
Things have gotten so bad in Albuquerque that there are now rumors that Cullen may transfer at the end of the season. This game against the Aztecs is important for so many reasons not only does the team want to avenge their first loss but they now are in a must win situation every game, sitting at 9-7 in conference play the Lobos are in fifth place but are just two games ahead of UNLV and Colorado State which is important because the six through eleven seed must play on the first day of the tournament.
If the Lobos are going to win against the Aztecs they must find some balance on the offensive end. Elijah Brown has been on tear lately scoring 41 points in a loss to Fresno State but during the second half of were Brown did most of his scoring the offense was stagnant as everyone just watched him score. Tim Williams has been good for the Lobos but teams have focused on stopping him making the Lobos beat them from the outside. Williams is still scoring around 17 points a game but his touches have been limited.
The Lobos have yet to find a third scoring option as Cullen Neal has struggled and is not playing his game as it seems that the criticism from the local fan base has caused him to alter his game.
If the Lobos are going to win either Neal needs to have a break out game or the rest of the supporting cast needs to step up. Sam Logwood played more aggressive against Fresno State but he still has not become the consistent scorer that many thought he would be at the beginning of the season.
On the defensive side New Mexico seems to bring out the best in every teams they allowed a slumping Utah State to get hot, they allowed Air Force to score 76 points, got blown out by Colorado State and gave up 92 points to Fresno State so there's a good chance the Aztecs can have their best offensive game of the season, unless New Mexico figures out how to play defense.
New Mexico is capable of locking down a team but it tends to put all of their energy into the offensive side and hope that they can out score their opponents.
The Aztecs have a balanced team led by freshman Jeremey Hemsley who scores 13.5 points per game. Hemsley came alive at the end of the second half and overtime of the teams' first meeting he scored 23 points eight of which came in overtime. Also, look for Winston Shepard to have a big game in his last visit to the Pit. Shepard always seems to have big games against the Lobos.
Even though the Lobos have been down the last couple of seasons the Lobo and Aztecs are still the two teams that have dominated the Conference over the last seven years. The Aztecs need this game to stay in the conversation for an at large bid. While New Mexico is just looking for momentum they really need a positive moment to define this season and a win against the Aztecs might be just what they need.
A victory will not stop the Neal hate, it won't put the Lobos on the National map nor will it move them into the two or three seed but it may be what the Lobos need to regain the confidence that was lost in San Diego 23 days ago.