LAS VEGAS, Nev. – Before taking questions from the media Thursday, New Mexico men’s basketball coach Steve Alford had a gripe to air.
“I have a question for you guys. What’s with the pretzels?” Alford jokingly asked, referring to the food available in the backstage area of the Thomas & Mack Center. “Pretzels and popcorn. You can’t ask for anything more than that? There’s all kind of good snacks.”
Even if the appetizers aren’t to Alford’s liking, the coach is in good spirits. His top-seeded Lobos are in the Mountain West Basketball Championship semifinals looking for their second straight tournament title. They’ll take on No. 4 seed San Diego State Friday at 7:05 p.m. MT.
No. 2 seed Colorado State battles No. 4 UNLV in the Friday’s other semifinal, scheduled for 9:35 p.m. MT. The championship takes place Saturday at 4 p.m. MT.
San Diego State (22-9) is only one of four teams to beat UNM (27-4) this year. On Jan. 26 in San Diego, the Aztecs handed the Lobos their worst loss in the shot clock era with a 55-34 decision. SDSU contained UNM’s shooting to 25 percent.
One month later, New Mexico outlasted SDSU in a 70-60 victory at The Pit. Alford said Thursday that game resembled more of a 50- to 60-point game despite the late offense both teams flashed. UNM post players Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow combined for 41 points in that second meeting.
“Some way, somehow, somebody incorrectly said that I said that The Pit was our second home,” SDSU head coach Steve Fisher said Wednesday. “They responded after they beat us, sometimes the second homes aren’t as good as you think they are. They were anxious to play us. I’m sure they’ll be anxious to play us again. So will we.”
Both teams used tough defense to survive their first-round opponents Wednesday. UNM advanced to the semifinals 53-44 despite a 12-minute stretch without a field goal. San Diego State withstood a late Boise State rally in the last quarterfinal.
Some Lobo fans have called the Thomas & Mack Center “Pit West.” Many supporters made the trip to Las Vegas and rivaled the level of attendance and crowd noise of any team playing on the venue floor.
Mountain West coaches have gone on the record expressing their displeasure for holding the tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center, the home court for MWC member UNLV. Some changes were made to the venue to resemble a neutral setting, like MWC or NCAA signage in many areas and a new layer of hardwood in the arena. This year’s championship court is the same hardwood used at the 2012 NCAA Women’s Final Four in Denver.
“It’s still the Thomas & Mack Center,” Alford said. “You’re not going to convince me of that (neutrality), but the enhancements the league has made in signage and banners and even back in the halls of trying to make it as neutral as possible, that’s been really positive.”
The league has also gone to a three-games-in-four-days schedule, which gave UNM, San Diego State, Colorado State and UNLV a day off. Alford said the team practiced for 30 to 40 minutes, and a bulk of the preparation work for Friday focused on game film analysis and scouting reports.
The Lobos are healthy too, Alford said. Point guard Hugh Greenwood has some stiffness in his neck, he said, but should be 100 percent by game time Friday.
UNM won’t do anything drastically different against San Diego State, Alford said, keeping the emphasis on the tough half-court defensive set. As has been the offensive trend all season long, the Lobos will try to work the ball inside with Bairstow and Kirk and try to free things up along with perimeter for their guards.
Alford called Xavier Thames the key to SDSU’s roster. The point guard missed playing time earlier this season with a sprained back but has since returned. He netted 18 points against San Diego State on Wednesday, and he was one of three players with at least 17 points. Guards Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley scored 19 and 17, respectively.
Over the course of the regular season, San Diego State held its opponents to 60.5 points per game in 30 games. UNM’s defense gave up 61.4 points in its 31-game regular season, but that average improved to 60.7 in 16 MWC games. SDSU surrendered 62.8 points per game in league play.
“Well, I’ll take a forfeit if he (Alford) doesn’t want to come,” Fisher said. “If he’s going to be in the (NCAA) tournament, a second seed, he probably doesn’t need another championship. They’re going to come at us and they’re going to want to smack us around like they did at their place.”