There are two Mountain West games that will get the lion’s share of attention today: San Diego State at UNLV and No. 24 Colorado State at Air Force.
But don’t expect the No. 19 New Mexico Lobos, the team sitting alone atop the Mountain West standings, to get caught up in any scoreboard watching with a dangerous Boise State team here to play at a sold-out Pit.
“That’s the nice thing,” UNM head coach Steve Alford said. “It doesn’t matter what the scoreboard says. We’ve put ourselves in position where we control it. We talk about that to our team all the time. We don’t have to scoreboard watch because we control our own destiny.”
It’s true. If the Lobos (21-4, 8-2 MWC) win the rest of their games, there is nobody in the league that can keep them from winning an outright regular-season championship.
They got to that position without concerning themselves night in and night out with what the rest of the league is doing, instead focusing only on the task at hand.
Tonight, that task is trying to slow down the once-again explosive offense of the Boise State Broncos (16-7, 4-5), a team leading the league in scoring (74.9 points per game) despite struggling immediately following an overtime loss to the Lobos on Jan. 16.
“They got healthy,” Alford said when asked why the Broncos again look like one of the best teams in the league. “Three of their losses came in a stretch where they got injured. (Jeff) Elorriaga was out and they weren’t at full strength, but once they got to full strength, they’ve been playing really good.”
Elorriaga, one of the best 3-point shooters in the nation and whose 46.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc easily leads the Mountain West, suffered a concussion in the Jan. 16 overtime loss to UNM. He missed three of this team’s next four games, which resulted in losses at Air Force, Nevada and Colorado State.
Since he’s been back at full strength the past three games, Boise State has defeated UNLV and Wyoming and suffered a last-second, one-point loss at San Diego State.
It isn’t as though the 6-foot-2 junior guard is the Broncos’ best scorer – his average of 10.3 points per game is significantly lower than Boise State’s potent 1-2 punch of Derrick Marks (16.6) and Anthony Drmic (16.1) – but he has allowed the Broncos to return to their comfort zone of spreading out a defense.
“They prefer playing four guards, so when he’s healthy, they can play four guards,” Alford said. “When he’s not, I don’t think they’re as strong doing what they want to do.”
In the first contest last month in Boise, UNM’s top three front-court players, Alex Kirk, Cameron Bairstow and Chad Adams, shot a combined 3-of-18 from the field and finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds and five turnovers.
Boise State junior forward Ryan Watkins had a double-double with 12 points, 10 rebounds and shot 6-of-8 from the field. Sophomore guard Marks added a game-high 27 points.
“He’s somebody that can score 30 points on any given night,” Alford said of Marks. “They can score a lot of points, and they’ve got our full attention as a coaching staff. And I know the players are focused in on them, too.”
The Lobos overcame Boise State’s offense a month ago thanks to 22 points from Tony Snell and clutch playmaking from Hugh Greenwood down the stretch, despite his playing with flu-like symptoms.
INJURY REPORT: X-rays on Kirk’s injured left hand were negative and “he is a go. He’s fine,” for tonight’s game, Alford said. Kirk hurt the hand in Wednesday’s win at Fresno State.
Junior guard Demetrius Walker, however, is “day to day” Alford said, with a left knee injury suffered in the first half of the Fresno State game.
MOCK THIS: The NCAA held its annual mock tournament selection exercise in Indianapolis on Thursday and Friday, with 20 media members from around the country simulating the process the NCAA Tournament selection committee will go through to select and seed the field of 68 teams.
The two-day process ended with UNM a No. 4 seed (the No. 13 overall team in the tournament) opening with No. 13 Ohio in Salt Lake City in the second round of the tournament.
Three other Mountain West teams were selected: Colorado State (a 7 seed), UNLV (10) and San Diego State (11). Air Force and Boise State were left out of the tournament, but both were among teams heavily considered, meaning they are well within reach of an at-large berth if they perform well over the next month.
The mock bracket had eight Lobos opponents in the tournament field.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal