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Redshirt sophomore guard Elijah Brown lets the ball slip past his hand while playing UNLV Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016 at WisePies Arena. The Lobos will play San Jose State this Saturday at 4 p.m..
Redshirt sophomore guard Elijah Brown lets the ball slip past his hand while playing UNLV Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016 at WisePies Arena. The Lobos will play San Jose State this Saturday at 4 p.m..

Men's Basketball: Lobos' stretch run may impact MW tourney seeding

New Mexico’s back-loaded Mountain West schedule could have implications on the conference tournament seeding process.

Five of the Lobos’ next six opponents are all positioned in the top half of the conference standings. These are Boise State, Colorado State, Fresno State, San Diego State and Nevada. The Lobos also have a date against a feisty Air Force squad in there.

Aside from San Diego State controlling its own destiny at 12-1 in league play, only two games separate second-place UNM from sixth-place Colorado State. Plus, the Lobos hold only a half-game edge on the Broncos, who they will meet Wednesday night at WisePies Arena.

UNM (15-10, 8-4 MW) has an even split between home games and road tests over the next few weeks. Head coach Craig Neal said the key will be to protect their home court and possibly take a few games on the road. His squad is 11-2 overall in home games this year with only one conference loss in Albuquerque.

“Unfortunately we don't have a bye left,” said Neal, whose remaining home slate includes Boise State, Fresno State and SDSU. “We understood that when it happened, so the biggest thing is we've got to try to take care of home games and try to steal a couple on the road if we can.”

Neal said he tries not to address potential tournament seeding with his players in order to prevent them from looking past the next opponent. He and his coaching staff, however, do know where the team stands among its fellow MW teams.

The goal, as always, will be to win the Mountain West regular season, but Neal said he’s not sure if they will be able to catch the Aztecs at this point.

On Boise State

If the last two Boise State games are an indication, New Mexico won’t see the same starting lineup it saw in their Jan. 30 meeting.

The Broncos (17-9, 8-5 MW) made a change in their starting five last week against Colorado State, replacing forward Nick Duncan with center Robin Jorch and guard Anthony Drmic with guard Montigo Alford.

Boise State nearly pulled a win in that game, but referees negated a go-ahead 3-pointer saying the Broncos didn’t get the shot off before time expired. The Mountain West had released a statement affirming the call but later backed away from that assessment when a discrepancy between the replay stopwatch and the game clock was found.

The team responded from that setback with a 94-71 victory over Wyoming this past Saturday, again starting Jorch and Alford. Even coming off the bench, however, Drmic and Duncan have been seeing at least 20 minutes of game action.

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Neal said he hadn’t read why Boise State coach Leon Rice made the change to his lineup, but it apparently added a spark.

"It goes to the kind of kids these guys are, they just want one thing, they just want to get the job done,” Rice told the Idaho Statesman.

Contenders for MW Player of the Year

Traditionally, the Mountain West’s top player award is given to the best player on the regular-season champion team, but New Mexico boasts two players who could be in contention.

Guard Elijah Brown and forward Tim Williams ranks second and fourth, respectively, on the conference’s scoring list. Brown ranks behind Wyoming’s Josh Adams with 20.7 points per game in MW games while Williams averages 17.4.

Williams also has the league’s best shooting percentage at 60.7 percent from the field, a whole 10.2 percentage points higher than Air Force’s Hayden Graham.

Depending on how the regular season closes out, Neal said he thinks both will earn first-team all-conference honors and be considered for the player of the year.

"It'll just be interesting to see how everybody votes because in years past it's been the team that's won,” he said. “And it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.”

Aget’s foul trouble

The role for center Obij Aget has been somewhat limited lately because of foul trouble. He had four fouls against San Diego State and San Jose State, causing him to play less than 20 minutes in both games. He also played only 22 minutes at Utah State after two early fouls in the first half.

When Aget is not on the floor, the Lobos lose their best shot blocker, and it changes the defensive look. The Lobos were able to hold the SJSU squad in check even with Aget on the bench, but Neal said he wants his center to avoid foul trouble in the future.

If he does, Neal said he could possibly put Joe Furstinger in the five spot on the floor. Yet Aget needs to ensure he gets his hands up and use his length to defend. Rules changes this year means when a defender has his hands down, he is more likely to be whistled for a foul, Neal said.

“We address it all the time, but it doesn't mean it's going to keep him from getting fouls,” Neal said. “We're trying to do a lot of things, but he's got to continue to stay out of foul trouble and get his hands up.”

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 sports@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @JROppenheim.

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