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UNM, USC Both Defensive Minded

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Lobos, Trojans Protect Against Foes Scoring

The Lobos aren’t in the dark about it.

They know they haven’t shot well from the field this season, and heading into tonight’s home contest with the defense-minded USC Trojans, it’s hard to imagine this is the best time for the shots to start falling at a high percentage.

But the team is confident it knows the reason the 18th-ranked Lobos are undefeated: defense.

“It’s like the sun coming up,” UNM head coach Steve Alford said. “It happens every day. That’s what our defense has to be. It’s got to be constant.”

The Lobos’ 41.4 percent shooting percentage is a far cry from when they ranked second in the Mountain West Conference last season with a sharper-shooting 46.2 percent. But the other side of the coin is that the Lobos have held opponents to just 39.1 percent shooting and have an average margin of victory of 9.5 points.

“I think something that we’ve really done well is our defense,” said UNM sophomore point guard Hugh Greenwood, who has hit big shots when they matter but has made only 24.1 percent (7-for-29) of his 3-pointers.

“We haven’t shot the ball well, so we’ve got to work on our shooting, but our defense is what’s kept us in games and gives us a pop to win.”

USC head coach Kevin O’Neill of the 3-4 Trojans has gained a reputation as a defensive specialist through the years in the NBA and college ranks.

The Trojans have three 7-footers on the roster and have been holding opponents to just 41.4 percent shooting – the same as the Lobos have shot – thanks to a defense that is unforgiving if teams can’t shoot from the outside.

“They’re strong. They’re physical,” Alford said. “Now with their size … really from the 3-point line down, they’re really good defensively. That length and athleticism there, there’s not a lot of open spots.”

USC has lost four of its last five entering the Pit, with two of those losses coming against nationally ranked teams (Illinois and San Diego State) and two more vs. quality teams in Marquette and Nebraska. Alford called USC’s schedule thus far “brutal.”

While the Trojans’ three 7-footers have yet to post big numbers – none of them plays more than 22 minutes or averages more than 6.3 points per game – the Trojans’ size is still cause for concern for UNM.

“It’s rare,” UNM’s 7-foot sophomore center Alex Kirk said of facing a team with three players as tall or taller than he is. “Back in AAU days, maybe. I haven’t played against a 7-footer, it feels like, in a while. … It will be a fun matchup.”

SERIES: This is the second of a two-game home-and-home contract between the two schools. Last year, the Lobos won in Los Angeles, 44-41, to even the all-time series at 5-5. UNM is 3-1 in the Pit versus USC.

WALKER SLUMPING: The four-guard lineup UNM tried earlier this season never seemed to fit this Lobos team, and no player suffered through the failed experiment more than junior Demetrius Walker.

Walker was the player asked to commit to the most change with the four-guard rotation. While the Lobos have looked better since transitioning back to a more traditional three-guard, two-big men lineup, Walker has yet to regain the form he showed down the stretch of the 2011-12 season.

Short of a 19-point performance Nov. 23 vs. Idaho, the first game back in his old role, Walker has played well below the bar he set for himself last year.

“He’s got to bust out of that. That’s on him,” Alford said. “I would agree he hasn’t had the best start. Through eight games, he hasn’t had a great start to the season, (but) he’s an outstanding basketball player.”

Walker is averaging 7.3 points and 2.0 rebounds per game. His 20 turnovers are tied for the team high.

The quick-footed Walker has gotten into trouble when driving the lane, one of his strengths a season ago. When driving, he’s often turned the ball over or been whistled for a charging violation. Also, he’s shooting just 52.9 percent from the free-throw line after hitting at a 75.5 percent clip there a season ago.

LOBOS LINKS: Roster | Schedule/Results | Geoff Grammer’s blog

— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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