For most of the season, the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year debate has been centered on two players: New Mexico forward Cameron Bairstow and San Diego State guard Xavier Thames.
Neither one was able to take an edge in the argument until Saturday night when the Lobos dominated the No. 6 Aztecs 58-44 at The Pit. With the win, UNM (21-5 overall) and SDSU (23-3) are now tied atop the league standings with identical 12-2 Mountain West records.
Bairstow finished with a game-high 26 points, hitting 11 of 18 shots while also collecting nine boards. As for Thames, he was notably absent for most of the night. The Aztecs best player hit just 3 of 15 shots for seven points with two rebounds and two assists.
There was never a point in the game where Thames looked like the best player on the floor or in the Mountain West.
“I don’t think about that stuff. It’s just an award type of thing. I don’t really think about it too much. It doesn’t really matter to me in terms of personal awards,” Bairstow said. “It’s more about the team winning the conference championship that matters to me. It’s not something that I consider or think about what it takes to do that.”
From the beginning of the game, Bairstow more than proved to a national audience on ESPN 2 that he’s the Mountain West’s top player.
The Aussie native came out on fire scoring 10 of UNM’s first 18 points. Thames never answered Bairstow or helped SDSU get into rhythm. His first make came on a jumper with 1:57 left in the first half.
In the final 20 minutes, it was most of the same for both Bairstow and Thames.
Bairstow continued to dominate down low and added 16 more points. Thames kept throwing up bricks as his team fell behind 24 points in the second half.
SDSU forward JJ O’Brien, who guarded Bairstow for a majority of the night, said the Mountain West’s leading scorer had his way with the Aztecs.
“We were just not trying to let him catch it deep. I gave him some easy buckets,” O’Brien said. “He likes to duck in and use his strength to get easy buckets. We tried to get him out of the paint the best we could before they passed it to him.”
Heading into the Saturday’s game, Thames was in a massive shooting slump and it continued. Over the past four games he’s shot under 20 percent from the floor, while only scoring at least 13 points twice. Overall, Thames has hit just 10 of his last 50 attempts for an even 20 percent.
Thames’ struggles were compounded thanks to UNM’s stifling defense which held SDSU to 32 percent shooting (21 of 65). The Lobos have held nine straight opponents below its season scoring average.
“He’s had four games in a row where he hasn’t shot the ball very well. When you’re best player is having that happen to him, not a lot of good things will probably happen,” Fisher said. “I have to give my best player to make decisions. In hindsight, we should’ve been so better in shooting so fast.”
As it stands now, Bairstow is unquestionably the best player in the conference and rightfully so. Unless Thames catches fire during the last four games or UNM somehow stumbles to the finish, Bairstow will be second straight Lobo to take home Player of the Year honors. Williams received the award last season.
“(The Player of the Year award) was never a goal of mine,” Bairstow said. “I never expected to be in this position, so it doesn’t really matter to me.”