It wasn’t always pretty, but the UNM men’s basketball team endured its grueling nonconference schedule with an impressive mark.
The Lobos are 13-2 on the season heading into Mountain West Conference play this week. They started their 2012-13 campaign with 12 straight victories stretching into the University’s winter break. It was the second time in four years that the basketball team opened a season 12-0.
As of Sunday, UNM has the No. 9 RPI ranking and the eighth toughest strength of schedule, according to RealTimeRPI.com.
“We like to play hard. Our kids are tough and play hard and fight,” head coach Steve Alford said on Dec. 27. “That’s been our M.O. all year long … I think we’ve had one game out of 14 where we’ve shot over 50 percent, so it’s been our defense. It’s been our fight.”
In five games, all at The Pit, UNM outscored its opponents by at least 13 points. Those foes were Idaho, Portland, Mercer, Valparaiso and New Mexico State.
However, UNM needed to rally from double-digit leads in three of those games. The Lobos were down by 16 points against Davidson, 10 points against Southern California and 11 points against NMSU.
UNM also has an early-season tournament championship after winning the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands.
“As a team, overall, we have great chemistry,” junior guard Kendall Williams said. “The conference hasn’t started yet, but I think so far we’ve built a strong résumé.”
But after the New Mexico men’s basketball team rattled off one of its best starts in school history, the Lobos hit a wall. The Lobos lost two of their last three contests.
Three days after sweeping NMSU and five days before its biggest nonconference game at Cincinnati, UNM dropped its first game to South Dakota State and its heavily recruited point guard Nate Wolters, who scored 28 points in the five-point decision.
UNM’s other loss, a 14-point loss at Saint Louis, was the team’s worst performance of the year. The Lobos committed 16 first-half turnovers and scored 13 points in 20 minutes against the Billikens, but never recovered, resulting in a double-digit loss.
UNM finished the game 31.8 percent from the field, its lowest of 2012-13.
In between those games came UNM’s best defensive effort of the year against Cincinnati, ranked No. 8 at the time. The Bearcats lost 54-55 against the Lobos on a 31.3 percent shooting clip.
Sophomore center Alex Kirk, who has emerged as one of UNM’s most consistent players, finished that game with 15 points and seven rebounds. He had nine second-half points, and he made the buzzer-beating block on Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick.
So far this season UNM has averaged 68.7 points per game, shot 41.3 percent from the field and outscored its opponents by an average of 6.6 points per game.
Williams leads the Lobo offense, scoring 14.9 points per game. He ranks in the top 10 among scorers in the MWC. Kirk and junior guard Tony Snell also average double-digit scoring at 11.3 and 11.1, respectively. Kirk’s shooting percentage ranks highest on UNM’s roster with a 50.3 percent clip, and his 7.2 rebounds per game is sixth best in the MWC.
Strong foul shooting made a difference in several games thus far.
The Lobos make an average of nine more free throws than their opponents, making 75.1 percent of their shots from the line.