The 2018 Mountain West Men’s Basketball Championship was underway on Wednesday and the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team began the tournament in a good spot — enjoying a first-round bye and waiting for two other schools to compete for the chance to play the next day against New Mexico.
New Mexico (17-14, 12-6 MW) earned a bye week by defeating Fresno State in its regular season finale on Wednesday, securing the No. 3 seed in the tournament in the process. That allowed the Lobos to sit back and watch Wyoming and San Jose State — two schools which UNM swept during the regular season — play in the final first-round game of the day.
Seeding held on day one of the tournament as the No. 8 hometown UNLV Rebels outlasted No. 9 Air Force in overtime, 97-90, in the opening game and No. 7 Utah State downed No. 10 Colorado State later by a 76-65 margin.
No. 6 Wyoming took care of No. 11 San Jose State by a score of 74-61 to put a bow on the day’s festivities. The Cowboys were paced by junior guard Justin James, who finished the game with 24 points on a perfect 9-of-9 shooting night from the floor to advance his team to the next round.
The Lobos enter the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the league, having won five straight games to finish the season. The only team with a longer current winning streak is San Diego State, which is riding a six-game winning streak.
So it may be a fortuitous fact that New Mexico drew the opposite side of the bracket from those red-hot Aztecs, the host school of UNLV and the tournament’s No. 1 seed of Nevada.
Avoiding all of those teams until a potential meeting in the championship round likely increases New Mexico’s chances of winning three games in three days — which would be the only way for the Lobos to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
But none of that will matter if the Lobos don’t take care of business Thursday night against the Cowboys.
And the Lobos should be well aware of James and other Wyoming shooters capabilities.
The teams met each other twice during the regular season, but there was a stark contrast between the way the two games were played.
In the first matchup, which took place on Jan. 10, New Mexico hosted Wyoming at Dreamstyle Arena. UNM led for much of the first half, but found itself looking up at the scoreboard and trailing by five heading into the locker room at the half. But the Lobos surged ahead in the second half to seize control of the game and take a 75-66 win.
Wyoming’s James torched New Mexico though, pouring in 31 points that night to lead all scorers. However, he didn’t get much support as only one other Cowboy reached the double-digit scoring plateau. Senior guard Antino Jackson was the high man for the Lobos with 20 points.
There was plenty of scoring in the Feb. 20 rematch though — and not a lot of defense going on — as both teams surpassed the 100-point mark in a game that felt like a track meet in Laramie, Wyoming.
It was a different Cowboy that went off for 31 points that time around, as senior guard Louis Adams worked up a lather on 11-of-15 shooting to lead a trio of Wyoming players that scored 20 or more — including James, who had 23 points. But the Cowboys never led by more than three points in the game as they just weren’t able to match the firepower of the Lobos.
UNM’s Jackson scored just three points in the second meeting, but got plenty of help from his teammates. The Lobos also had three players with 20+ point scoring nights as fellow senior Sam Logwood and junior guard Troy Simons each poured in 24 points, while freshman Makuach Maluach contributed 20.
New Mexico pulled away again in the second half — leading by as many as 15 — and outlasted Wyoming to notch a 119-114 road victory. Six Lobos ended up with double-digit scoring nights as the team shot 61.7 percent from the field for the game.
It will be interesting to see what the pace of play will be like in Thursday’s matchup, but the Lobos should be well-rested and ready to run after getting that extra day to recover and prepare.
The biggest area of concern for the Lobos could be the team’s recent tendency to turn the ball over. The Lobos have committed 18 or more turnovers in three of the last four games.
In the postgame news conference after the final regular season game, head coach Paul Weir said that the trend could not continue in the conference tournament, saying it would be particularly important to limit mistakes at the point guard position.
One of the biggest advantages New Mexico seems to have going for it, has been the effective shooting from both the free throw line and from beyond the arc. The Lobos are the best free throw shooting team in the Mountain West conference at 77.3 percent and have made 10 or more 3-pointers in 12 straight games — posting a 9-3 record during that stretch.
Wyoming and New Mexico are scheduled to tip things off Thursday at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada at 9:30 p.m. Whichever team comes out on top will advance to face the winner of No. 2 Boise State and No. 7 Utah State.
Robert Maler is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers basketball, football and tennis. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Robert_Maler.