The New Mexico Lobos say they found their swagger again in the final two games of nonconference play.
The confidence the team is sitting on comes thanks to the realization they are indeed more than just the Big Three scorers – Cameron Bairstow, Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk.
Ironically, the identity shift away from Big Three is due in large part to those three players seeing to it they weren’t the only ones producing.
In wins against Marquette and Grand Canyon University, the trio of leaders adjusted their games, sometimes at the expense of their own statistics, to ensure newcomers such as freshman guard Cullen Neal and junior college transfer wing Deshawn Delaney took on more of the scoring load.
“I think our guys are really jelling, trusting their teammates and making the extra pass,” UNM coach Craig Neal said.
Consider in the Marquette win, a game remembered by most as Cullen Neal’s coming-out party with his six 3-pointers and career-high 24-point performance. Six of his eight baskets, and four of his six 3-pointers, came via assists from Williams, Bairstow or Kirk.
And in Neal’s 18-point game Monday against GCU, Williams found the freshman in position for two more assists. And in both wins, Williams shouldered more of the nonscoring point guard duties of Hugh Greenwood (out the past three games with a right wrist injury), freeing up Neal to score more.
“I’m really happy with the way Kendall Williams is playing so much under control,” coach Neal said. “Not having Hugh, and Hugh’s always been a stabilizing factor, I think he (Williams) has really helped Cullen the last two games when he’s able to bring the ball up and stabilize us a little bit. He’s not making wild plays. He’s making real good basketball plays.”
Kirk and Bairstow have seen traps and double teams in the post pretty much exclusively since halftime of the Dec. 14 loss at Kansas. Instead of forcing the action as seemed necessary early in the year when nobody else was scoring, the two have passed out of the double team with great success.
So while Williams, Bairstow and Kirk’s scoring numbers in the past two wins were their lowest combined numbers of the season, the Lobos’ confidence is back because of it.
“I know we have some depth,” Williams said. “I know we have more depth. We have the big three (scorers) and then we have some guys that are really playing well right now.”
MWC STRUGGLES: With Boise State’s Christmas night loss to No. 14 Iowa State in Hawaii’s Diamond Head Classic, the Mountain West Conference lost out on yet another opportunity for a big nonconference win.
As CBSSports.com writer Matt Norlander documented Thursday in an article ranking all the major conferences in college basketball, the MWC hasn’t exactly had a banner year.
“The Mountain West, which had a surge last season, is dipping back down and proving itself to be on a separate shelf from even the new Big East and the American Athletic Conference,” Norlander wrote.
Based on Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) numbers posted on CBSSports.com on Thursday (the RPI formula is fluid and varies slightly on different websites), the MWC is the 10th-rated conference (it was No. 1 or 2 a season ago, depending on source). The MWC is the only league in the top 10 not to have a win against a team currently ranked in the Top 25 RPI (the league is 0-15).
On Thursday, there were four of 11 MWC teams in the Top 100 RPI, with three more ranked outside the top 200, with Air Force actually ranked outside the top 300. The final 2012-13 RPI rankings had seven of nine MWC teams in the Top 100 and the other two in the top 180.
What that means is while the Mountain West had five teams make the NCAA Tournament a season ago, it is likely looking at just two or maybe three this season.