The home stretch begins now.
The New Mexico Lobos (18-4, 9-1 Mountain West) had this past weekend off after last Wednesday’s overtime victory over Wyoming and now face eight games over the next four weeks with no margin for error as they are a half game behind No. 5 San Diego State (21-1, 10-0).
But Lobo coach Craig Neal says he really likes where his team, a winner of 11 of its past 12 games, is at.
“If you told me in November we’d be 9-1 right now – if we’d take it, I’d take it,” Neal said Monday before the Lobos left town for Wednesday night’s game at Boise State.
“That being said, we’ve won five road games, which we haven’t done in a while. We have one home loss, which we had a chance to win. I think we’re healthy. The guys got rest (this past weekend).”
UNM isn’t entirely without injury as it tries to win its third consecutive league regular season title. And the player that’s hurt happens to be the same player inserted into the starting lineup 12 games ago when the team rattled off that 11-1 mark.
Junior guard Deshawn Delaney, who has started since the Dec. 21 win over Marquette, hasn’t practiced since last Wednesday’s Wyoming game after hurting a toe in his right foot. The injury isn’t considered serious long term, but his status for Wednesday’s game is uncertain.
While Neal wouldn’t say specifically what the injury is, Delaney did finish the Wyoming game, playing all five minutes in the deciding overtime period.
“Deshawn Delaney is hurt,” Neal said. “He’s got a toe problem. He didn’t practice (since the Wyoming game). I don’t know if he’ll play. It’ll be a game-time decision. Right now we’re planning on him playing, but I don’t know.”
The coach added, “If he can’t practice, he can’t play.”
The loss of Delaney could be big long term if it lingers, but against Boise State in particular his absence could really hit hard.
In UNM’s Jan. 21 win over the Broncos in the Pit, Delaney grabbed a team high nine rebounds, all on the defensive glass, a welcome sight for the Lobos in a game in which Boise State post Ryan Watkins had 22 rebounds and the Broncos had 19 offensive boards.
As for who may replace Delaney if he can’t go, Neal wasn’t certain.
“I don’t know who we’ll play,” the coach said. “That’s a good question, though.”
The likely candidates are sophomore Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas, who started in front of Delaney prior to the Dec. 21 game against Marquette, and freshman Cullen Neal, the team’s fourth-leading scorer.
UNM has played five games this season without a starter lost to injury, going 4-1 in those games (2-1 without an injured Hugh Greenwood and 2-0 without an injured Alex Kirk).
“I’m sure we’ve got enough guys on our bench to recover,” Neal said. “We won two games on the road without the best center in the league. It’s not like we haven’t been able to win games without a starter.”
BLACK OUT: One thing will certainly look the same as when the Lobos beat the Broncos on Jan. 21 in the Pit. The uniforms.
While the host team generally wears the “home white” uniforms and the visiting team wears its road colors, this game will be different. Boise State is attempting a “Black Out” promotion in which its asking fans to wear black to the Taco Bell Arena. The players will also be wearing their black uniforms, the same they wore in their loss to UNM last month. The Lobos, who wore their silver uniforms in that win, are expected to wear the same silver uniforms this go around instead of their normal road cherry uniforms.