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Lobos Anticipate Defensive Struggle

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ST. LOUIS – Lobos fans may want to start warming up to these sometimes ugly, physical defensive battles on the court.

Thursday’s win over No. 8 Cincinnati was the biggest victory of the year for New Mexico, which will surely return to the national ranking when both major Top 25 polls are released today. But it came in a game with what was by far the Lobos’ season scoring low of 55 points.

Today’s game two of UNM’s Midwestern road trip to close 2012 appears headed for the same type of setup.

UNM (13-1) takes on a Saint Louis (9-3) team that allows just 55.4 points per game and just 53.0 in the Chaifetz Arena.

“They take a lot of pride in their defense,” UNM coach Steve Alford said. “They did a good job of guarding us last year in our place, so scoring is going to be a challenge again.”

The Billikens, winners of six-consecutive games, all at home, managed to hold the Lobos to an Alford-era low seven assists in a 64-60 UNM win in the Pit on Dec. 31, 2011.

And considering UNM has yet to find a shooter’s touch this season, it wouldn’t be a shocker if easy shots are at a premium again today.

Making matters more challenging for UNM is that Saint Louis’ star point guard, preseason All-Atlantic 10 selection Kawaim Mitchell, returned to the Billikens lineup on Friday after missing the first 11 games and most of October training camp with a broken bone in his left foot.

In last year’s game in the Pit, Mitchell had 13 points, five assists and no turnovers.

“He’s really good,” Alford said. “Mitchell, he really hurt us last year, especially in the second half. He makes them go.”

In Thursday’s win over the Bearcats, it was Alex Kirk in the post with 15 points, seven rebounds and three blocks, including the game-winning block of Sean Kilpatrick at the buzzer, that had the Lobos going, especially in the second half.

UNM also got quality minutes on both ends of the floor at Cincinnati from reserve guard Demetrius Walker. And starting guard Kendall Williams matched shot for shot with the Bearcats down the stretch, using four second-half 3-pointers to give him a game-high 16 points.

The Lobos will have nine days off to prepare for the Jan. 9 Mountain West opener against UNLV after today’s game. While the rest, Alford has said, is much needed for his team after a demanding non-conference schedule, it will be a long hiatus from game action for the Lobos if they look past the Billikens as they did the South Dakota State Jackrabbits on Dec. 22.

MAJERUS: Today’s game in Chaifetz Arena will be the second of a home-and-home contract between the two programs set up under former coach Rick Majerus, the longtime UNM rival when he coached at Utah. Majerus, who praised the UNM fan base as his favorite in the conference all the years he coached at Utah after last year’s loss in the Pit, passed away Dec. 1.

POLL POSITION: After Thursday’s win at Cincinnati, it was apparent the previous week’s plummet from the Top 25s of both major polls was probably a bit of an overreaction.

It’s hard to know for sure just how far back into the polls the Lobos will bounce when the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches Top 25 polls are released today prior to the Saint Louis game, but taking a look at how the AP’s other top 25 teams fared this week may help a little.

This past week, just four Top 25 teams lost – No. 7 Missouri, No. 8 Cincinnati, No. 17 San Diego State and No. 20 UNLV. Six teams didn’t even play – No. 11 Minnesota, No. 15 Georgetown, No. 19 Michigan State, No. 21 Notre Dame, No. 22 Oklahoma State and No. 24 Pittsburgh. The other 15 teams won their games.

It’s understandable to think at least some voters may not jump the Lobos past teams that didn’t play a game, but it’s hard to imagine there won’t still be some significant adjustments for the Lobos in the pecking order.

VOTER TALK: Percy Allen of the Seattle Times had Cincinnati ranked higher than any of the 65 AP Top 25 voters this past week, placing the Bearcats at No. 4 on his ballot. He also had Cincinnati ranked higher than any other voter in the three previous polls dating back to Dec. 3.

It is unclear how far Allen will drop Cincinnati in this week’s poll based on Thursday’s loss at home to an unranked UNM team, but he does have recent precedent. Two weeks ago Allen thought highly enough of the Lobos to rank them No. 17 before a loss to unranked South Dakota State. That had Allen changing his opinion of the Lobos to the tune of leaving them completely off his ballot this past week. Will he give the Bearcats a similar punishment after their first loss of the season – at home to an unranked foe?
— This article appeared on page B1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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