Back in the mid-1960s, when Mel Daniels patrolled the paint for the New Mexico Lobos, defense and a quality big man were often a winning combination.
So it was again Wednesday night, almost a half-century later, as Alex Kirk and the 25th-ranked Lobos defeated 24th-ranked UNLV 65-60 at the Pit.
Yet, sometime soon, the Lobos will have to start putting the ball in the basket on a more regular basis.
Daniels, who was honored at the Pit on Wednesday night in recognition of his recent induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, arguably was the University of New Mexico’s best low-post player ever — perhaps its greatest player ever.
Yet, during Daniels’ three seasons as a Lobo, UNM never made the NCAA Tournament.
True, the NCAA field was much smaller back then (1964-67). Yet, the Lobos’ modest accomplishments during his career — a 54-24 overall record, a 14-16 ledger in the old, six-team Western Athletic Conference — suggest those teams might have struggled to make even a 68-team field.
What was the problem?
Outside shooting, that’s what (though I’m not saying it was that simple). Even 20 years before the introduction of the 3-point shot, games could be won or lost from the perimeter.
During the Daniels years, it seemed, there was always somebody out there who couldn’t throw underwear in a hamper.
Wednesday night at the Pit, with Daniels looking on, the 2012-13 New Mexico Lobos took the floor against UNLV with a season shooting percentage of 41.3 percent — second-worst, ahead of only Fresno State, in the nine-team Mountain West Conference. New Mexico was also No. 8 in 3-point percentage at 34.1.
In the past three games, two of them losses, those figures were 33.5 and 32.7.
Wednesday, things didn’t improve much. The Lobos shot 38.6 percent from the field and 31.6 on 3’s. Take away Kirk’s 7-of-13 effort from the field, and UNM was 15-of-44.
Kirk is nowhere near as springy and powerful as Daniel was as a Lobo. But the Hall of Famer liked what he saw from UNM’s young big man.
“He has talent,” Daniels said. “He has good size. He’s not as explosive as he could be, but he’s a sophomore. … He’s got good coaches in Noodles (associate head coach Craig Neal) and (head coach Steve) Alford, so they’re gonna show him how to be effective.”
The Lobos won Wednesday because they had a huge advantage at the foul line, forced some key turnovers, benefited from unforced UNLV errors down the stretch and played solid defense throughout.
When Daniels played for the Lobos, one opposing coach of the era said he’d rather face the Viet Cong than the UNM defense.
Daniels said he wasn’t enamored with the current Lobos’ style of defense, but acknowledged it was effective.
“The defense is there, but it’s different,” he said during a brief halftime interview. “The game is a little softer now, a little more fan-friendly. … It’s not a criticism; it’s just the way the game is being played.”
Then, there’s the shooting.
Even in the absence of a 3-point specialist like Troy Devries or Chad Toppert, no one expected outside shooting to be a UNM weakness this season. Last season, the Lobos’ numbers were 46.1 from the field and 37.6 from beyond the arc. Among Kendall Williams, Tony Snell, Jamal Fenton, Hugh Greenwood, Demetrius Walker, et al., wouldn’t there always be a hot hand?
Maybe not. As Daniels often was during his UNM career, Kirk was the Lobos’ best outside shooter Wednesday.
Hey, I hear you say: The Lobos just beat a nationally ranked opponent. They’re 14-2 and nationally ranked themselves. What’s the problem?
The shot chart says there is one.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal