Last Saturday night in California was a pretty big night for UNM Lobo men’s basketball program.
In the second season of a major rebuild under head coach Richard Pitino, the Lobos, who lost by 25 points one year ago in the same arena, knocked off then-No. 23 San Diego State. They ended the Aztecs’ 16-game home win streak and announced to those who doubted that they are, very much, players in the Mountain West Conference.
The problem is, as significant as that 76-67 win was just six days ago, the foe the Lobos face Friday night in the Pit has a pretty good case for being even better.
“We talk a lot about San Diego State, as we should because they’ve won the most (Mountain West championships overall), but (Boise State is) the conference champions (from last season). They’re the conference tournament champions (from last season),” Pitino said. “… That’s a huge game for us. Obviously, a quad one win opportunity, obviously a league game.”
As of Thursday, Boise State (15-4, 5-1 Mountain West) was tied for first in the league standings, had the league’s highest NET rating (19), highest KenPom.com ranking (24), and boasts the No. 1 offensive and No. 1 defensive efficiency ratings in league games.
But if the team matchup – BSU vs. UNM (17-2, 4-2) – doesn’t do it for you, how about the fact that two of the league’s best players – in fact, the No. 1 and No. 2 rated players according to KenPom.com – who also happened to be high school teammates, will headline the matchup?
UNM point guard Jaelen House, who on Thursday was the only Mountain West player named to the Oscar Robertson Trophy midseason watch list, is ranked No. 1 by KenPom.com using a formula that combines all offensive and defensive metrics. Boise State’s Marcus Shaver, who played alongside House on the nationally ranked Shadow Mountain High team in Phoenix coached by House’s uncle, Mike Bibby, has made the transition to point guard and is ranked No. 2 by KenPom. Shaver has missed fve games to injury this season and still isn’t quite 100%, his head coach said.
House, Boise State coach Leon Rice said, “might be one of the quickest guards in the country. He gets from one end of the floor to the other maybe faster than anybody.”
House easily leads the MWC in points on fast breaks at 5.32 per game, according to CBBAnalytcs.com. The next closest in the league is UNLV’s Luis Rodriguez (4.06). And, despite the Broncos not being the same type of up-and-down team as UNM or UNLV, Shaver is third at 2.93 fast break points per game.
MAX ON BRYCE: After his career-high 29 point game in Tuesday’s home win over Steve Alford-coached Nevada, Boise State’s Max Rice, son of the Broncos’ head coach, gave a shout-out to La Cueva graduate Bryce Alford.
Several years ago, it seems, Max Rice reached out to Bryce Alford with questions about playing for dad at UCLA.
“He was one of the main reasons I came here,” Max Rice said postgame. “He said playing for his dad was one of the best experiences he ever had, so I was like, I might as well take his word for it because he was a great player in college. I have a lot of respect for those guys. Coach Alford’s a great coach. …Yeah, shout-out Bryce Alford for getting me here.”
ALL-ACCESS: Count Leon Rice among the huge fans of Tuesday’s “All-Access” broadcast of the San Jose State vs. UNM game on FS1 that had both head coaches wearing live microphones.
“I texted (Pitino) and said thank you for all your calls. I appreciate it,” Leon Rice joked Thursday. “He said, ‘We’re going to change all the names.’ I said good luck with that.”
As for whether he’d ever be interested in taking part in such a broadcast, the BSU coach was emphatic: “Absolutely not.”
SAFI ON SCHOLARSHIP: UNM announced Thursday that 5-11 senior guard Safi Fino-A-Laself, in his second season with the team, will be on scholarship the rest of the season. The now-former walk-on from Las Cruces (he played high school basketball in Texas) was awarded the scholarship vacated in the fall semester by Jay Allen-Tovar, who transferred out of the program.
“Safi has worked hard to help our program get better every day in practice since he joined our team last year,” said Pitino. “We had an available scholarship this semester and I believe in using that opportunity to reward a player like Safi, who selflessly does the things on a daily basis to help his teammates. Our team’s excitement upon hearing the news shows how much every one of his teammates respects Safi and appreciates what he has done for our program.”
PJs IN THE PIT: UNM is having a “Pajama Party” promotion for Friday’s game with fans being asked to wear pajamas for the late starting game.Â UNM said Thursday there had been a little more than 12,000 tickets and 37 of 40 suites sold for the game.
BRICKS IN THE PIT: Fans of the beautiful art of making free throws may still have nightmarish flashbacks to Jan. 15, 2022, when these two teams played in the Pit.
The Broncos and Lobos missed a combined 26 free throws. Boise State went 21-of-38 (55.3%) at the line and the Lobos went 5-of-14 (35.7%).
While free throws can’t be defended, both the Lobos and Broncos again have great free throw defense. UNM opponent shoot a league-worst 65.1% from the free throw line this season and Bose State opponents are second-worst at just 68.4%.
NET GAINS: As mentioned previously, Boise State leads the charge in the NCAA’s NET rankings for the Mountain West at 19. But the league as a whole is doing quite well with five teams in the Top 35 as of Thursday’s all important NET rankings that are the primary, though not only, rankings used by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to help determine who plays in the 68-team Big Dance and where they are seeded.
And almost as important as the rankings of the teams at the top are the rankings of teams like San Jose State and Air Force, teams usually carrying such low NET rankings that just having to play them, never mind the risk of losing to them, would sometimes hurt the computer ratings of Mountain West teams.
19 Boise State
30 San Diego State
31 New Mexico
34 Utah State
113 Colorado State
127 San Jose State
138 Air Force
205 Fresno State