The New Mexico Lobos’ results of the week ahead – with games tonight at UNLV and at home Saturday vs. No. 6 San Diego State – won’t by themselves secure a third consecutive Mountain West regular-season title. But they can all but eliminate the Lobos from title contention if things go south, with just four games remaining after this week.
With a Mountain West record of 10-2 (19-5 overall), the Lobos sit in second place in the league, one game behind SDSU (22-2, 11-1) and two ahead of third place UNLV (17-8, 8-4).
“This is a pivotal week,” Williams said. “… One win at a time and it starts with getting our revenge in Las Vegas.”
That need for revenge stems from UNLV beating the Lobos 76-73 in the Pit on Jan. 15 – a game in which the Rebels jumped to a 16-point lead in the first 10 minutes but allowed the Lobos back in it with a chance to win in the final minute.
While hardly diminishing the importance of the week as a whole, UNM head coach Craig Neal said any thoughts of the league-leading Aztecs will have to wait until after tonight’s showdown in the Thomas & Mack Center.
“We’re only thinking about UNLV,” Neal said. “… I don’t know if a kid should look anywhere ahead of what they did (last time they played UNLV). They got beat by UNLV, and their main focus should be on UNLV.”
The Rebels on Jan. 15 said they were playing with extra motivation they conjured up from an intended compliment from UNM center Alex Kirk, who said UNLV was built like “a hell of an AAU team” because of their unquestioned collection of talent.
Three letters not uttered Monday when the Lobos spoke with the media about the rematch were “AAU.” In their place, the three letters that seemed to be the primary focus for this game were ” PnR,” as in pick and roll.
The Lobos were abused by the Runnin’ Rebel guards in pick-and-roll defense in the last meeting. UNLV’s Bryce Dejean-Jones (23 points, 11-of-13 free throws), Deville Smith (17 points) and Kevin Olekaibe (14 points, including 4-of-5 on 3-pointers) each seemed to pick apart different aspects of UNM’s perimeter defense, be it by getting fouled, driving deep into the lane with regularity or hitting drive-and-kick 3-pointers.
“We have to get a lot better at pick-and-roll defense, which they exploited,” Neal acknowledged Monday.
Asked then whether he feels his team has in fact improved how it defends the pick and roll since the UNLV loss, Neal grew somewhat defensive.
“I do as a coach,” he said. “You guys don’t as media, so – but I’m a coach.”
Williams was less defensive in his assessment of how the Lobo’ pick-and-roll defense has evolved since the UNLV loss.
“I think mentally we’re more locked in,” said Williams, who on Monday was named to the Bob Cousy watch list for the nation’s best point guard. “We’re aware of what these refs are trying to call, and a lot of times we’re trying not to get those fouls (out on the perimeter, which has allowed some teams to penetrate more on UNM). But at the same time we still have to have that tough mindset that we’re going to get this stop and know the situation. I think we just lost that last time in the Pit.”
The Lobos have held their past seven opponents under that team’s season scoring averages and, as Williams said, the UNM defensive effort has appeared to be much improved in recent weeks.
“We understand … how we’re going to score against them,” Williams said, “but we need to clamp down and be able to play them defensively, because we’ve been playing a lot better defense and I think that’s the biggest growth for this team.”