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Junior center Obij Aget hands on after a dunk at WisePies Arena Dec. 1. The Lobos will play Northern Iowa this Saturday at 7 p.m..

Junior center Obij Aget hands on after a dunk at WisePies Arena Dec. 1. The Lobos will play Northern Iowa this Saturday at 7 p.m..

Men's basketball: Lobos hope to avoid Finals Week lull

By the time Saturday rolls around the fall semester – final exams and all – will come to a close. That may be break time for most students, the New Mexico men’s basketball team will get back to work.

Typically, the Lobos have endured lulls around this time of year, whether they be the Thanksgiving break or making sure to remain academically eligible during Finals Week. UNM aims to prevent that when Northern Iowa comes to WisePies Arena.

What causes the lull around Finals Week? Mental fatigue, Neal said. The coach granted his players Sunday, Monday and Tuesday off as they prepared for their last tests. Practice resumed Wednesday, and Neal said most test were completed by Thursday.

Even with the extra study time, it puts a strain, Neal said.

Another component that makes these months hard is holiday travel, Neal said. Players – including several between 18 and 20 years old – making sure their travel arrangements are lined up, presents are purchases, etc. Neal said he and his coaches try to eliminate much of that stress, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

“I think there's a lot of things that play into their heads that we as coaches and adults that went through it ourselves,” he said. “I can remember going through it. It was when we did the same thing when I played, and you've got a lot going through your mind.”

A full week will have passed since UNM’s last game, a 70-58 loss at Purdue. Despite the setback, some national analysts took notice. CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein wrote “New Mexico is going to be a real factor at the top of the Mountain West and can make some statements nationally when it plays in the Diamond Head Classis in Hawaii.”

But the Lobos (5-2) are tired of moral victories, Neal said. They want to get back on the floor and win.

Northern Iowa (6-2) boasts arguably the most prominent win of the year, a 71-67 victory over then-No. 1 North Carolina. The Panthers also have a loss against Mountain West opponent Colorado State, 84-78.

Neal added some caveats to those two results. First, the Colorado State game was Northern Iowa’s first of the season and, Neal said, the Rams are a good team. As far as the win over the nation’s top ranked team, the Tar Heels played without Marcus Paige, the guard who has emerged as UNC’s top scorer.

Otherwise, Northern Iowa’s program is rather similar to New Mexico’s in terms of national recognition. The Panthers have seven NCAA tournament appearances, including six since 2004 and a regional semifinal appearance in 2010. That year, they knocked off national power Kansas.

As opposed to the big Purdue squad, Northern Iowa is a strong jump-shooting team. Neal said the Lobos need to contain the Panthers’ transition 3-pointers and force them into taking tough shots inside the arc. That includes containing Wes Washpun, Northern Iowa’s top scorer with nearly 16 points a game.

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Though Neal said he does not expect to play a lot of zone defense Saturday, UNM has found success in the zone. That in part stems from the shortened 30-second shot clock, he said, but also the Lobos size and length. Plus, the Lobos have shown they know how to play the zone.

Cullen Neal and Elijah Brown, UNM’s two sharpshooting guards, continue to average around 17 points per game. What has emerged over the last few games, however, has been their play varies from half to half. Craig Neal attributes that to opponents’ adjustments on the two guards, as evident in the Loyola-Chicago game weeks back.

“Are you going to let them get their average and stop everybody else and have a chance to win, or are you going to try to stop them and let everyone else make plays?” Craig Neal said. “We've seen it both ways, and for us it's just been a benefit.”

The X-factor for the team comes in whoever can step up at UNM’s third guard position. Sam Logwood continues to start at that position, but Craig Neal said he wants to see more production at that spot. Logwood has 5.7 points per game as UNM’s third guard.

Bench points also need to start falling more frequently, he said. UNM’s reserves nets a solid 14.43 points per game, but that number took a dip after only six against Purdue.

“If we can manufacture some bench points and do some things that way, then that will help our team.”

J.R. Oppenheim is the assistant sports editor for the Daily Lobo. Contact him at or on Twitter @JROppenheim.

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