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Lobo basketball blocking the opposition

New Mexico’s Alex Kirk (53) blocks a shot by New Mexico State’s Sim Bhullar earlier this season.(Jim Thompson/Journal)

New Mexico’s Alex Kirk (53) blocks a shot by New Mexico State’s Sim Bhullar earlier this season. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Alex Kirk already had a reputation as a shot blocker after last season.

But now, the 7-foot center from Los Alamos is leading a New Mexico Lobo block party that is on pace to not only set a school record, but shatter it. And that’s even after his slowest week of the season last week in wins at New Mexico State (two blocks) and vs. Cincinnati (one).

Kirk’s 27 blocks in eight games (3.4 a game) have put him on pace for 101 in 30 games. That doesn’t include any Mountain West Conference or postseason tournament games.

Before his one-block game against Cincinnati on Saturday, Kirk, a member of last season’s Mountain West All-Defense team, had multiple blocked shots in each of UNM’s first seven games and in 17 of his previous 22. Should he get 101 blocks this season, he’d finish his junior season with 284 career blocked shots. Another big redhead, Luc Longley, has the UNM career shot-block record of 336.

“Lets face it, unless we’re playing New Mexico State (and he’s guarding 7-5 Sim Bhullar at center), Alex is going to have a chance to block on-ball shots,” UNM coach Craig Neal said Thursday.

But Kirk isn’t alone. The Lobos have 55 blocked shots (6.9 per game), a total that puts them on a 30-game pace of 207 (again, that doesn’t include potential postseason games).

The UNM season record of 182 was set by “Stormin'” Norm Ellenberger’s 1976-77 squad that played 30 games for a per-game average of 6.1 blocks.

“Cameron (Bairstow, Kirk’s 6-9 frontcourt mate for the Lobos) has done a good job on the ball blocking shots … but he’s also had some big blocks when he’s the second guy removed,” Neal said.

The coach added that his whole team has been very active in help defense and getting “a lot of blocks from the second guy.”

Bairstow says there may be a little more to the block-happy pace the Lobos are setting this season. New rule changes have made drawing charges in the paint a seemingly impossible task anymore. Bairstow says he thinks as long as officials are doing their job and calling blocking fouls the way the new rules dictate, they might be giving the benefit of the doubt to players who are going up to challenge shots.

“I think maybe the refs are rewarding guys who are going for blocked shots instead of charges,” Bairstow said earlier this season. “I think if you use it to your advantage, it can be a good thing. …

“I feel there’s been a couple situations that definitely it would have been a foul previously and it wasn’t a foul this year.”

Neal agrees with Bairstow that it may be happening with some officials. But he also flashed a smile and added, “I just think we’re a little bit more athletic than we get credit for.”

ROAD GAME: Although Saturday’s game is being played in the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., it is a designated home game for the Jayhawks, and was sold as part of the team’s annual season-ticket package. And it is a road game for New Mexico, which is far more beneficial to UNM in terms of RPI and strength-of-schedule ratings, win or lose, than a “neutral-site” contest.

ON THE CALL, TWICE: Saturday’s game will be broadcast on ESPN2 with Dave Fleming on play-by-play and former UNM coach Fran Fraschilla on analysis. The same crew will be calling UNM’s Dec. 21 game against Marquette in Las Vegas, Nev., on ESPNU.

Of course for the radio listeners, Robert Portnoy and Scott Didrickson, as usual, will be on the call on 770 AM for both games.

FARIS OF THEM ALL: Former Lobo and Eldorado graduate Daniel Faris left Albuquerque this week for his fourth professional season in Lebanon, and fifth pro season overall, with a team called Sagesse. Faris flew from Albuquerque to Atlanta to Italy and finally to Lebanon.

LOBO LINKS: Geoff Grammer’s blog | Schedule/Results | Roster