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The Lobo bench erupts in excitement as they make a basket at WisePies Arena Wednesday night. The Lobos will play Rice this Saturday at 6 p.m..  

The Lobo bench erupts in excitement as they make a basket at WisePies Arena Wednesday night. The Lobos will play Rice this Saturday at 6 p.m..  

Men's basketball: Lobos look to end home nonconference schedule unbeaten

Head coach Craig Neal over the last several weeks has discussed the team’s goal to win every game at New Mexico’s own WisePies Arena. One more game remains to see that to fruition in the nonconference slate.

So far the Lobos have avoided the one setback that mars an otherwise unblemished pre-Mountain West season at home, like South Dakota State in 2012. A victory Saturday against Rice would give UNM its first perfect home nonconference slate since the 2010-11 season.

Neal said he’s stressed with his players that the team has found itself with those “hiccups” like the one against Jackrabbits, a 70-65 loss that happened while the Lobos were ranked 16th nationally. These Lobos (7-2) have responded with growth and maturity, Neal said.

“That's big that they can understand that and haven't let that happen yet,” he said. “Now they haven't finished Saturday yet, but I feel pretty good where we are and proud of what they've done and how well they've played.”

On the sixth-place Mountain West prediction, Neal said at the time of the announcement and reiterated it Thursday that the pick was realistic when examining the woeful 15-16 season a year earlier. He joked that he would want to be selected sixth every year.

Neal did stop short in saying he has a team that will be in the hunt for a crown, but he feels it can compete with just about anybody. He admitted his surprised to the early success.

What the players believe, well…

“Those guys believe a lot of things. It's hard to temper them down,” Neal said. “I think they think they can play with anybody, but I think we've got a long way to go. I think we've got a long way to go. I think that was a realistic pick because they haven't played together.”

UNM’s defense has played solid through the first nine games, even in one department – 3-point defense – widely criticized in recent years. The Lobos have held opponents to 66.4 points per game and to 27 percent in 3-point field goals. That success stems from UNM’s length, Neal said.

They’ve also been putting up the points up as well, especially in Albuquerque. UNM averages more than 80 points in WisePies Arena games and won by a nearly 20-point margin in those six home games.

But, in typical coaching fashion, Neal said there are things to improve on. He’d like to see better pace to the offensive execution, like players getting in their spots quicker and making sharper, nonchalant passes. Using Neal’s analogy, if the goal is a high school diploma then the Lobos are in about third grade at this point.

“Now we haven't played our best basketball, which is good for us, so we've got a lot of growth,” he said.”

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Rice (4-6) enters the game having won four of its last six games, including two in a row against St. Edward’s and St. Thomas. The Owls score nearly 74 points per game but have surrendered 79.6 to its foes. Guards Marcus Evans and Egor Koulechov lead the team with 19.6 and 17.7 points per game, respectively.

“We can't let them get any momentum or confidence,” Neal said. “We have to continue to improve defensively, which I think we really have.”

J.R. Oppenheim is the assistant sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers men’s basketball and women’s soccer. Contact him at or on Twitter @JROppenheim.

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