Some call Stanford the “Harvard of the West” because of its reputation for high academic excellence, but New Mexico basketball fans hope that’s where the similarities end.
The No. 7 seed Lobos open NCAA tournament play against the 10th-seeded Cardinal Friday at 11:40 a.m. MT in St. Louis, looking to avoid a repeat of last year’s stunning upset to Harvard.
In that second-round game the Lobos, as a third seed, could not deal with the Crimson’s hot scoring in a six-point upset. UNM held a third seed that time around. The loss caused an uproar in Albuquerque, prompted one longtime local sports writer to rail against the program in his retirement swansong, and was followed by Steve Alford’s departure to UCLA weeks later.
All but three players from that squad returned this season with Craig Neal now in charge as head coach. At a Wednesday press conference in St. Louis, guard Kendall Williams said he expected the question about the Harvard loss would come up.
“Upsets happen all the time,” he said. “People ask if we learned from it, and sure we have. It was tough to go out like that. You represent a program, so I think it helped us go in with a better mindset. And now we’re really just prepared to take every possession by possession and go from there.”
The Lobo frontcourt continued to play well all season through the team’s Mountain West Basketball Championship title run. Both forward Cameron Bairstow and center Alex Kirk made the all-tournament team, with the former claiming the MVP title. Offensively Bairstow ended the regular season with a 20.3 points-per-game average while Kirk scored 13.6.
Both players were dominant forces despite rule changes designed to remove some of the fierce physicality out of the game. UNM (27-6) like others, were forced to adapt but eventually figured it out.
While the Lobos haven’t fared particularly strong in 3-point defense, they have done much better closer to the basket. UNM ranks fourth in the nation in two-point field goal defense at 41.4 percent, according to the statistics website kenpom.com.
“You can still be physical in the paint and screening and stuff if you do it the right way, and that’s what we have tried to do,” Neal said. “And we have been very fortunate this year to win 27 games and win the way we have.”
Stanford (21-12) gets quite a bit of production out of its frontcourt. Forward Dwight Powell nets 14.2 points per game, forward Josh Huestas has 11.4 and center Stefan Nastic gets seven. The Cardinal is aware of the Lobos’ physical style with Bairstow and Kirk, and Powell said he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“Using their bodies to get positions and rebounds and things of that nature, and they run the floor pretty well for their size and (they are) pretty mobile,” Powell said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge and are preparing all year for this type of game.”
Though both teams play a physical style in the post, the guards should still figure heavily into the equation.
Two of Stanford’s five leading scorers are guards — Chasson Randall at 18.7 points per game and Anthony Brown 12.7, although Brown is listed officially as a guard/forward. For UNM Williams averaged 13.6 per game while freshman guard Cullen Neal gets 7.2, primarily from 3-point range.
“Kendall is a great guard, one of the best in the country,” Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said. “And, of course, their front line is very good, one of the best in the country as well. And that’s a great balance. When you have that, you usually have a very successful team, and that’s why they are having the season they’re having.”
The winner will play either No. 2 seed Kansas or No. 15 seed Eastern Kentucky, who play at 2:10 p.m. MT.