LAS VEGAS – While it may sting to lose the regular-season title on the season’s final day, the New Mexico men have an opportunity to pursue another conference crown at this week’s Mountain West Basketball Championships.
The No. 20 Lobos begin their defense of the conference tournament championship on Thursday. After a first-round bye, No. 2 seed UNM will play either seventh-seeded Fresno State or 10th-seeded Air Force. The Bulldogs and Falcons battle today at 5:30 p.m. MT.
In last Saturday’s regular-season finale at Viejas Arena, UNM let a 15-point lead slip away. San Diego State shifted into a 1-3-1 zone defense that stymied the Lobos in the game’s final 10 minutes. The win cemented Mountain West Player of the Year honors for Aztec guard Xavier Thames over UNM forward Cameron Bairstow.
“You can watch the tape and go over it and over it. We had opportunities,” UNM coach Craig Neal said at Monday’s press conference in Albuquerque. “We had free throws go up one. We had shots to make. We had opportunities. We just didn’t attack it like we did in the past, and we’ll work on it and we’ll go through it and we’ll get better.”
Lobo TV had video from Monday’s press conference available online.
Saturday won’t be the last time New Mexico will see a zone defense, Neal said, and it’s something the team will prepare for in its upcoming games. When San Diego State broke into its 1-3-1 setup, the Lobos scored only seven points in the final 11:39. Bairstow had one point and center Alex Kirk went scoreless over that span.
“Guys, we’re going to see a lot of zone because the only way you can keep the ball away from post players is if you play zone,” Neal said. “People realize that the double teams don’t work. They understand those guys are hard to guard because they play so well together.”
Despite the loss, UNM (24-6) moved up one spot in both the Associated Press and coaches top 25 polls. It’s a rare occurrence for a team to be elevated in the rankings after a loss, and Neal said he was surprised when he heard about it.
“It’s a sign of where our program’s come,” he said. “I think it’s a sign that people (who) watch the game know we have a really good team and we had a bad 10 minutes. It’s just strange. I don’t know how to explain it.”
As the No. 2 seed for the MW tournament, New Mexico sits on the side of the bracket opposite from SDSU, No. 3 seed UNLV and No. 4 Nevada.
Ironically, the Lobos will face a team in the second round they saw only one time previously this season because of the 18-game schedule. UNM beat both teams, winning at Fresno State 89-78 on Jan. 18 and dropping Air Force at home 80-52 on March 5.
The Bulldogs (16-15) enter the tournament having won eight of their last 10 games, including a 68-51 win at Air Force on Feb. 2, after losing seven of their first eight conference games.
The Falcons (12-17) have six conference wins but only won two of their last four. Air Force won its season finale with a 64-61 home win over Boise State.
“Our first-round game will be as tough as if we make it to the championship,” Neal said. “That’s just the way it always is. You’re first-round game always seems to be the hardest.”
Lobos net USBWA awards
One day after Bairstow and guard Kendall Williams received All-Mountain West first team honors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association named Cameron Bairstow as its Player of the Year for District VIII.
The USBWA placed Bairstow and Williams on its all-district team along with fellow Mountain West members Daniel Bejarano of Colorado State, Deonte Burton of Nevada and Anthony Drmic of Boise State.
Neal also won the association’s district coach of the year award.
District VIII includes schools Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Montana.
Thames was among the all-district team members for District IX.