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Lobos need bench to level playing field vs. defending champion

RENO, Nev. — He’s said it since he was hired.

In first-year head coach Paul Weir’s vision of relentless pressure, the New Mexico Lobos — at least this season’s foundation-laying version — will play 40 minutes of all-out effort, no stars and plenty of contributions throughout the lineup.

The point, he has maintained, is that the roster he put together since his April hire — one with four players from last year’s Lobos who have seen action, and the rest who were added from April through August, only days before classes began — simply won’t have the athletic ability, size or continuity to go toe-to-toe with the best teams they play. That’s unless they employ a style those teams simply aren’t used to and one that makes opponents tired and uncomfortable.

Their best chance is wearing an opponent down.

“No disrespect,” Weir has said on more than one occasion to the San Jose States and Air Forces of the Mountain West Conference, but his game plan is not to try to get the Lobos to compete with them.

“This is about trying to give ourselves the best chance of competing with the Nevadas of the league and the others at the top by the time March comes around,” Weir said.

Saturday, the Lobos (6-8, 1-0 Mountain West) get a chance for a midterm exam at Reno’s Lawlor Events Center, home of the defending league champion and current favorite to repeat this season, the Nevada Wolf Pack (12-3, 1-0).

And the contrast in styles, or at least in usage of a roster, might not be more drastic in any other conference game this season.

To say the Lobos rely on their bench wouldn’t be doing justice to the word rely. UNM needs its bench to have a shot at winning.

“We might not have the top one or two or three best players on the floor, but if we’re better eight, nine, 10 … we’re just trying to bring our style onto the game,” Weir said Wednesday after UNM routed Air Force 87-58. “We don’t always get there. It never looks perfect, but this is what we’re trying to do .

Wednesday night, the still-progressing style worked to perfection as all five Lobo bench players scored in double-figures and the UNM bench scored 58 points —the same as the entire Air Force team. It also was the first time this season the Lobos scored more in each quarter of the game — 16 points in the first 10 minutes, 20 in the second 10 minutes, 22 in the third 10 minutes and 29 in the final 10 minutes.

UNM’s leader in minutes per game (Chris McNeal at 27.3) ranks 22nd in the Mountain West in that category. Nevada, meanwhile, has stars it leans on heavily, often utilizing a six-man rotation with minutes dropping significantly for players seven and eight off the bench. Three Wolf Pack players, each of whom can make a strong case for being on the league’s five-member all-conference team (Caleb Martin, Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline), rank in the top nine in the league in minutes played per game. That trio averages between 32 and 36 minutes per game.

Those three also combine to average a shade under 50 points per game and have made the Wolf Pack a team with both the best RPI (14) and best KenPom.com (29) ratings in the league.

But don’t think that means the Lobos, 14.5-point underdogs as they seek their first win outside of the Pit on Saturday, will be intimidated.

“We’ve played Arizona, we’ve played TCU, we’ve played Maryland, we’ve played a very good New Mexico State team,” Weir said. “We’ve played very good teams. I don’t think Nevada is just overwhelmingly better than any of those teams, but one thing I know off the bat that we’re going to have to find a way to do better is rebound the basketball. They’re just physical. They’re athletic. They’re going to be a problem on the glass.”

In losses to the top two teams it has played — Texas Tech and TCU — Nevada got only three and 10 points from its bench, respectively. UNM, meanwhile, has had nine games of more than 30 bench points, including four with more than 45 points.

So, Saturday in Reno, the Lobos get their shot to see if the “top to bottom, every man contributes” approach will work. UNM ranks 18th (out of 351 teams nationally) in bench minutes (getting 40.9 percent from non-starters). The Lobos will try to wear down the league champs, who get what they need from their stars who start. Nevada ranks 324th of 351 in the nation in bench minutes at 24.9 percent.

“I’m excited,” Weir said. “I hope our players are excited. It’s just another team to take our style to. Let’s see if we can have some fun on the road and rattle the cage a little bit.”

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