And now for a real test.
The University of New Mexico Lobos, sitting at 6-0 on the season and among the final 18 (of 363) Division I teams in the country without a loss this season, head West on Wednesday to face what should be one of the two best defensive teams they play all season.
The blueprint for coach Randy Bennett’s Saint Mary’s Gaels (5-1 record and 10½ point favorites for Wednesday’s 8 p.m. MT tipoff in Moraga, California) is one that seems to present some intriguing challenges based on what’s been working so well this season for the Lobos.
“We’ve certainly put an emphasis on getting to the rim and playing in the post,” UNM coach Richard Pitino said after a game this past weekend in which his squad attempted a mere nine 3-pointers in a 76-55 win over North Dakota State.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a team in my tenure as a head coach and we shot nine 3s. So we’ve got to find a rhythm of not holding back if we’re open from 3. But we’re doing a really good job of attacking the basket. We’re doing a really good job of playing inside out.”
UNM has, in fact, hit just 5.2 3-pointers per game this season, which ranks 325th in the country.
But why would that be a problem for a Lobos team with two guards scoring plenty inside the arc and two new big men – one of whom leads the Mountain West in scoring in Morris Udeze at 19.5 points per game, and his league-best 61.6% shooting clip has pretty much entirely come within five feet of the basket?
The issue is the Gaels own one statistical edge more than almost any team in the nation the last few years that cuts into what’s been working so well for UNM. Simply put, teams don’t get assists against the Gaels.
As of Tuesday, SMC ranked seventh in the nation in A/FGM (assists per field goals made). While the national average for the number of made baskets that come off an assist is 51.7%, SMC’s opposition assists on just 35.7% of their made baskets.
In the previous six seasons, SMC led the nation in that statistic twice, was second once and fourth another time.
Essentially, they force teams to beat them one-on-one. And the ball movement and flow the Lobos’ offense has had the past few weeks, including getting the ball to Udeze in spots where he can easily do damage, is going to be hard to come by on Wednesday.
While House and Mashburn have proven in the past to be more than capable one-on-one scorers, this season the focus has been on ball movement and getting everyone involved, which will be put to the test in California.
“(Pitino’s) constantly just talking to us about moving the ball,” said forward Josiah Allick. “Just get it swinging. Because the worst thing you can do when you’re struggling offensively is just trying to turn it into – you don’t want anyone to try to be the superhero. You just need everybody just keep playing a role and just let it work out. It’s only when like one person tries to kind of save the day that things really start crashing.”
Pitino knows Wednesday’s game, especially in a season in which two of its potential best nonconference games against New Mexico State have been canceled, is one of the few his team has left to gain some national attention and make a splash before Mountain West play begins.
“Saint Mary’s, that’s a potential Quad 1 win opportunity on the road,” Pitino said. “They’re a terrific team. They’ve had unbelievable sustained success. I know it’s going to be a huge challenge. …
“But we got one true road win with SMU (84-63 on Nov. 15). I thought we handled it great. And it’s another opportunity right here and as we figure out the schedule, because with New Mexico State being off, this is a really good opportunity. Hopefully we can find another good one or maybe two (games), but this is a great one.”