BOISE, Idaho – Motivation was easy to come by for the New Mexico Lobos basketball team about seven years ago when Craig Neal came to Albuquerque as part of a new coaching staff tasked with rebuilding the program into a winner.
Now, after four Mountain West regular-season titles, a pair of No. 3 seeds in the NCAA Tournament and finding their way into the national rankings on several occasions in recent years, the Lobos sometimes have to dig deep to find that perceived disrespect.
You might even say they have to dig Down Under.
On Monday, when an Albuquerque TV reporter asked Neal why Hugh Greenwood seems to have such good games against the Boise State Broncos, UNM’s opponent tonight in Idaho, Neal referenced a comment that seems to have riled up his Australian point guard and teammate Cameron Bairstow.
“There’s been some comments from their camp that I think has struck a cord with our camp,” Neal said. “That’s on them. I just know our guys will be ready to play.”
Neal declined to elaborate on specifically what was said by the Boise State coaching staff or when, but he’s referenced the perceived slight in the past and has said it essentially amounted to Boise State saying it has better Aussies on the Broncos roster than do the Lobos.
UNM (18-4, 9-1 MW) has Greenwood and Bairstow, while Boise State (15-9, 5-6) has three Australian players – leading scorer Anthony Drmic along with reserve guard Igor Hadziomerovic and freshman Nick Duncan.
All five attended the Australian Institute of Sport before accepting scholarships to play with their current Mountain West Conference teams. Boise State also has one of the more well-known Australian basketball stars in recent memory on its coaching staff, John Rillie, who is considered a top recruiter of his home country.
The reality is the Aussie connections have clearly panned out better on paper for the Lobos, both in series results (UNM is 5-0 since the Broncos joined the Mountain West) and in head-to-head stats between Greenwood and Drmic. The two have played the most significant roles in the series and for their teams. Both have been starters since their freshman seasons in 2011-12.
After Greenwood poured in 20 points and hit five 3-pointers in UNM’s Jan. 21 win over Boise State, he said he and Drmic have a “love/hate” relationship, close friends off the court but heated rivals on it dating back to their time as roommates at AIS and playing alongside each other in international play for Australia.
In five games, Greenwood has averaged 12.8 points per game, shot 53.8 percent from the field, 56.5 percent from 3-point range, while hitting 2.6 treys per game, and grabbed 6.2 rebounds per game, all numbers well above his career and season averages. And of course UNM has won all five of those games and two league regular-season and tournament titles since Greenwood joined the program.
Greenwood’s success against the Broncos prompted Boise State head coach Leon Rice on Jan. 21 to call it “Aussie on Aussie crime.”
In those same five games, the Lobos have managed to stymie Drmic, who leads BSU in scoring this season at 17.0 points per game. Drmic’s averages are 8.4 points, 31.1 percent shooting, 21.4 percent from 3-point range and 4.2 rebounds per game, almost all of which are below his career and season averages.
But Neal knows extending the Lobos winning streak against a Broncos team that has lost its last three games won’t be easy and won’t be only about the Aussies.
“I think our guys know what it’s going to take to win,” Neal said. “I think they’re prepared for it.”
DELANEY UPDATE: Junior guard Deshawn Delaney practiced Tuesday in Boise for the first time since injuring a toe in his right foot in last week’s win over Wyoming. Neal said Delaney is expected to start tonight. UNM has gone 11-1 since Delaney was made a starter Dec. 21 against Marquette.
DEFENSIVE ABOUT DEFENSE: The Lobos are the top scoring team in Mountain West play and the No. 1 rated team in MWC games in terms of offensive efficiency according to KenPom.com.
But Craig Neal doesn’t like people not giving his team credit for the other side of the ball.
“The last five teams we’ve held under their (scoring) average,” Craig Neal said. “I know we don’t get a lot of credit for that, but that’s facts. We’re getting better defensively and we’re doing a lot of good things.”