UNLV’s Khem Birch on Monday was named the league’s player of the week after averaging a double-double.
Wednesday, the University of New Mexico will honor stars Kendall Williams and Cameron Bairstow, both of whom are in the league Player of the Year discussion as well as nominees for national awards (Oscar Robertson National Player of the Year for Bairstow, Bob Cousy Award for Williams).
Meanwhile, Alex Kirk, UNM’s 7-foot, 250-pound redhead in the middle had double-doubles in each of the Lobo wins last week. He blocked nine shots in the process. But he seems to have been overlooked despite playing his best basketball of the season and spearheading a defensive resurgence for the Lobos.
“Alex was unbelievable defensively,” UNM coach Craig Neal said Sunday after Kirk stifled Nevada’s offense in the paint during a 72-58 win. “He just changes so many shots. It’s hard to drive in there when he’s there.”
That’s what the rest of the league has figured out.
Neal has said Kirk is “the best on-the-ball shot blocker we’ve had (at UNM).” Thanks to his presence in the paint the Lobos rank No. 2 in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage, holding teams to 41.0 percent shooting inside the 3-point arc. Only UC-Irvine (40.1 percent) was better defending the 2-point shot out of the nation’s 351 Division I teams.
In the eight games since Kirk returned from taking two games off to rest a stress reaction in his shin (when CBS Sports national college basketball analyst Doug Gottlieb took to Twitter to suggest the Lobos defense is better without him), the big man has had three double-doubles while averaging 13.4 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. Those pretty much align with his season averages, but UNM is playing its best defense of the season with him anchoring the back end.
UNM has held all eight opponents since Kirk’s return below their season averages from 2-point range, including holding six of the eight below 40 percent. The national average is 48.5 percent.
Here is what the Lobos’ past eight opponents shot from 2-point range vs. the Lobos with their season average in parenthesis:
- San Jose State, 31.2 percent (39.5 percent)
- Wyoming, 48.6 percent (53.1 percent)
- Boise State, 36.4 percent (49.2 percent)
- Nevada, 38.1 percent (48.8 percent)
- UNLV, 41.0 percent (48.9 percent)
- SDSU, 34.5 percent (46.9 percent)
- Utah State, 35.0 percent (44.8 percent)
- Nevada, 37.2 percent (48.8 percent)
No. 10 San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said after the Aztecs loss to UNM there simply isn’t much his offense can do if it can’t make, or even attempt with any confidence, shots in the paint. And with the way Kirk has been playing, that’s a tall order.
POLL POSITION: SDSU on Monday moved up to No. 10 in the Associated Press Top 25, up from No. 13 last week, while UNM bumped up to No. 21 from 25.
MT POLL: To view Journal staff writer Geoff Grammer’s AP Top 25 ballot from Monday, CLICK HERE.
RPI UPDATE: Monday’s official RPI update on NCAA.com (the list the NCAA Selection Committee actually uses) again had four MWC teams in the Top 100, but Wyoming fell out and UNLV moved in.
The league’s top four: UNM 14, SDSU 22, Boise State 54 and UNLV 99. Wyoming, after a pair of losses without the injured Larry Nance Jr., fell to 114.
SO LONG SENIORS: The league is saying goodbye this week to its seniors.
Some of those players who had standout careers: Boise State’s Jeff Elorriaga and Ryan Watkins; Fresno State’s Tyler Johnson (senior night was actually this past Saturday); Nevada’s Deonte Burton; New Mexico’s Williams and Bairstow; UNLV’s Kevi Olekaibe; San Diego State’s Xavier Thames; Utah State’s Preston Medlin, Spencer Butterfield and Jarred Shaw.
600 FOR MORRILL: While it may have looked a week ago as though it was going to happen in the Pit as his Aggies gave UNM all it could handle for 30 minutes, Utah State coach Stew Morrill finally snagged career coaching victory No. 600 on Saturday at San Jose State.
Morrill is 600-279 in 28 seasons and is the 14th active coach to reach the 600-victory plateau.
THAT’S WAC: With Sunday’s win over Nevada, New Mexico has improved to 16-1 over the five former WAC teams since they entered the Mountain West over the past three seasons (5-1 vs. Boise State, 4-0 vs. Nevada, 3-0 vs. Fresno State, 2-0 vs. Utah State, 2-0 vs. San Jose State).
IDENTITY CRISIS: UNM Sports Information Director Frank Mercogliano and athletic director Paul Krebs both took to Twitter on Sunday night to express displeasure with ESPN, which ironically streamed Sunday’s game online on ESPN3.com, for posting a headline that read “No. 25 New Mexico State beats Nevada 72-58.”
With a screen shot picture attached, Krebs tweeted out, “Can’t believe @espn doesn’t know the difference.”
It’s hardly the first time there has been a NMSU/UNM mishap, which is why Mercogliano included a note in each pregame notes packet given to media reminding they are the UNM Lobos, not the NMSU Aggies.
The Lobo camp doesn’t look too kindly on such mistakes, especially last week when a postgame player/fan fight after the NMSU and Utah Valley game led to at least two instances of the brawl being pinned to the Lobos on national websites.