Lobo basketball fans have been buzzing about this Saturday’s game against No. 6 San Diego State for weeks now, but New Mexico men’s head coach Craig Neal said, “It’s another game.”
Just another game?
“They’re all big now,” Neal said after his team captured a 68-56 victory at UNLV to stay one game behind Mountain West-leading Aztecs.
“People didn’t think we were going to win this,” Neal continued, “and our guys believed we’re going to win and I believed we were going to win. My staff believed we were going to win and we had a great opportunity. Well, now we’ve got another great opportunity on Saturday.”
SDSU (23-2, 12-1 MW) remains the last remaining MW opponent to face the Lobos, and the meeting comes 13 games into the 18-game schedule. The Aztecs won 20 straight games until losing at Wyoming on Feb. 11, but beat Air Force and Utah State in their last two games.
The Lobos (20-4, 11-2 MW), meanwhile, have not trailed in their last two games since they lost a one-point game at Boise State. Wednesday’s result over UNLV also marked a 20-point swing after the Runnin’ Rebels scored 76 on UNM on Jan. 15.
The game features a premier guard-on-guard matchup with last year’s Mountain West player of the year, UNM’s Kendall Williams, squaring off with one of this year’s contenders, SDSU’s Xavier Thames.
After winning the award a year ago, Williams earned the preseason honor and has improved his scoring average by about four points per game. He amassed 29 points against UNLV and broke double-digit scoring for the 24th time this season.
Thames has emerged as of the league’s top threats whose scoring increased significantly — from 9.5 points per game last year to 17.2 this season. His average ranks fifth in the MW, though he trails both Williams and UNM forward Cameron Bairstow, the MW leader. Bairstow should also be in the hunt for the league’s top player trophy.
When Williams and Thames are on the floor together, they will likely guard one another.
“If we contain him, that’ll be a big part, but they have a lot of versatile players,” Williams said. “It’s not all about Xavier Thames just like it’s not just about him. It’s going to come down to a whole team package on Saturday and I have confidence in my team.”
The game pits the league’s top scoring defense against the second-ranked offense.
The Aztecs have kept teams to an average of 56.6 points per game and have outscored their foes by a 15.4-point margin. No other MW teams have an average scoring margin in the double digits.
UNM scored 76.4 points per game through its first 25 games, nearly 6 1/2 points more than San Diego State. Only Boise State has a higher scoring average at 77.1
“They’re a great basketball team,” Bairstow said. “It’s going to be a hell of a matchup. We know basically how good of a team they are. They play together, they’re athletic basically across all positions. It’ll be a fun game for us.”
Men’s Basketball vs. No. 6 San Diego State