ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s the nature of the beast.
Come NCAA Tournament time, probably somewhere between 30 seconds and one minute after a team learns which its opponent in the Big Dance will actually be, assistant coaches around the country are usually frantically scrambling for game tape, statistics and any information they can gather to try to turnaround a scouting report on a usually unfamiliar foe.
Let’s just say they know a guy.
UNM (27-6), the No. 7 seed in the tournament’s South Region, will play the 10 seed Stanford Cardinal (21-12) at 11:40 a.m. Friday in St. Louis.
The Cardinal, of the Pac-12, lost two of three games this season, including by 25 points Friday in Las Vegas, Nev., to the UCLA Bruins, coached by former UNM coach Steve Alford and former UNM assistant Duane Broussard, both of whom are not only former colleagues with most of the current Lobos staff, but close friends.
“Unless you guys get my phone records, I’m going to say I haven’t really talked to him,” UNM coach Craig Neal said Monday with a smirk. “No, I’ve talked to him plenty. I talk to him at least three times a week during the year, and I’m sure I’ll talk to him three times a day or four times a day until we play. They played ’em three times and had success. That’ll be helpful.”
But having a jump-start on starting a scouting report is hardly akin to actually completing a scouting report for your team, your players. And as helpful as the Alford ties may be to the Lobos, it isn’t as though Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins doesn’t have some ties, too. Dawkins’ old college teammate at Duke is Tommy Amaker, who one year ago managed to craft a rather effective plan capable of leading his Harvard Crimson to an upset of the Lobos in Salt Lake City in the NCAA Tournament.
So the Lobos know they still have their work cut out for them in preparing for the Cardinal. Stanford is a team that is somewhat similar to the Lobos. It has a high-level guard in Chasson Randle (18.7 points per game) and size in the post that, unlike most UNM opponents this season, can match up with 7-footer Alex Kirk and 6-9 Cameron Bairstow.
“They run a triangle offense. It’s not really complicated; they just do a good job (with it),” Neal said, conceding the Cardinal offense can give teams fits when it’s firing on all cylinders. “You’ve got to limit Randle and you’ve got to be able to control (Dwight) Powell. (6-7 Josh) Huestis, who we recruited a little bit, is a very versatile guy. He can make jump shots; he’s in the post.”
The 6-10 Powell will likely be paired much of the game with Kirk down low. The other Cardinal frontcourt players are face-the-basket-type forwards capable of pulling Bairstow out from around the rim area, something teams in the Mountain West tried doing all season with varying success.
“I think it’s been a factor a lot of the year with the stretch fours trying to make me play outside and guard them,” acknowledged Bairstow. “… We’ve had to deal with it all year, and it is something that a lot of teams have tried to exploit and have exploited to some extent.”
UNM ranks No. 4 in the country in 2-point field-goal defense, allowing teams to shoot just 41.4 percent from inside the 3-point line. Stanford, meanwhile, is the 39th-ranked team in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to statistical guru Ken Pomeroy, and makes a living inside the arc. Stanford makes fewer than six 3-pointers per game and shoots 50.3 percent from 2-point range, well above the national average of 48.5.
The Lobos’ game plan, as is always the case, will concentrate on not giving up anything easy inside and forcing the Cardinal into long, low-percentage 2-point shots or even 3-pointers.
“We feel like we can go and hopefully slow up a powerful offense that we think is dynamic,” UNM senior guard Kendall Williams said. “There’s a lot of talent on that end.”
Fouls could be an issue if UNM is able to draw them, especially Bairstow and Williams, at their regular clip (25.6 free-throw attempts per game). The Cardinal starting five – the same starting five all season, with the exception of its Senior Night – scores 87.1 percent of the team’s points. Only 18 of 351 teams in the country have fewer bench minutes per game than Stanford.