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Lobo men to face tall order at Colorado State

THE GAME DAY BOX APPEARING IN SATURDAY’S JOURNAL

FORT COLLINS, Colo. – As UNM men’s basketball fans are well aware by this point, opposing teams with small guards have been a bit of an issue.

And while the Colorado State Rams (6-10, 1-2 Mountain West) will have some of those ready to go Saturday at 2 p.m. in Moby Arena, the Lobos (8-7, 2-1 Mountain West) face one big problem they haven’t had to deal with so far this season.

Rams 6-foot-11 senior Nico Carvacho is, in UNM coach Paul Weir’s estimation, as good a big man as there is in the league.

“Going into the season, I probably would have put him right there (as the best in the MWC),” Weir said. “I think the start of their season, from what I can gather, he was maybe either getting his legs underneath him or getting used to a new coach, a new system, whatever it may be. But as conference play has started, he’s pretty much established himself as the player that everybody thought he was. He’s a 20 (-point) and 20 (-rebound) guy when he’s really locked in.”

And the issue for the Lobos is that through three MWC games, Carvacho certainly has been locked in. The Frisco, Texas, product has averaged in three MWC games 26.0 points on an amazing 74.4 percent shooting and 14.0 rebounds – 4.7 of which per game are offensive boards.

The Lobos last season were undersized and couldn’t seem to avoid big men. Now as one of the tallest teams in the country in average roster height, they haven’t exactly faced a true big yet, so the Carvacho puzzle will be a bit of uncharted territory. In fact, only five players have grabbed double-digit rebounds against the Lobos this season, and none did so in the dominating fashion as a scorer and rebounder that Carvacho has the capability to do.

“It’s unique,” Weir said. “We really haven’t had to game plan for a lot of big men. … This year, we really haven’t had as much of that – A, because our team is a little bit different, but B, we just haven’t seen quite that same level post player. For us, it’s a unique challenge.”

It happens as the Lobos still try to adjust to its new zone defense put in place to try to keep their big men on the floor, both by staying out of foul trouble and not being a liability when guarding quicker players on the perimeter.

Carvacho, however, has been causing foul troubles of his own. He has shot 27 free throws in three league games, averaging a league-best 7.8 fouls drawn per 40 minutes.

For Lobo big men like Corey Manigault, who has struggled on defense in general, and Carlton Bragg, who has struggled staying out of foul trouble, their ability to stay on the court Saturday will be key.

TWILIGHT ZONE: At this point, it’s fairly well documented. The Lobos hadn’t practiced any zone until after a Dec. 18 loss to North Texas, when Weir determined his team simply wasn’t a good man-to-man defensive team, and his team’s size advantage was simply being negated too often by foul trouble guarding smaller, quick guards.

The Lobos have gone three consecutive league games with 100 percent zone defense.

So, is that the new norm?

“That’s a really good question,” Weir said. “I think that based on what we had put into our practices for really all those (MWC) games, we were really only geared for zone. We hadn’t really gone over any man-to-man principles. But as we go forward, we will probably need the flexibility to balance some things out.

“… The last team we played and the team we’re about to play are very small, one-on-one oriented teams – like a North Texas, like a New Mexico State, teams that have given us trouble. That was the reason we went to zone in the first place.”

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