Night Line: Meet New Mexico, the Mountain West’s Most Complete TeamPosted by EJacoby on February 16th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
In a two-day span, the entire complexion of the Mountain West conference has changed. Those who don’t think that’s a big deal should consider that the MW is actually the fifth strongest league in the country according to cumulative conference RPI, ranking above both the Pac-12 (no surprise there) and the ACC. It appeared as if UNLV was the team to beat in this league, but a shocking loss to TCU on Tuesday night left the door open for the winner of Wednesday’s showdown between the other two top competitors to get a leg up in the race. New Mexico wound up victorious in this matchup, winning at Viejas Arena over No. 18 San Diego State to add a huge road win to its resume and move into sole possession of first place in the conference. The Lobos host UNLV at home this weekend in the final matchup between the Mountain West’s ‘big three’ teams, and a win in The Pit will make the title race theirs to lose. The only MW team of the three that’s not currently ranked in any top 25 poll, Steve Alford‘s squad may actually be the most complete team of the bunch.
Wednesday night was a revenge victory for the Lobos, who were thoroughly beaten by San Diego State in Albuquerque back on January 18. New Mexico returned the favor by jumping out to an early lead and extending it to double digits in the second half to a point where the home team could not mount a big enough comeback. Shockingly, the Lobos got it done this time while seeing nothing from their top playmaking guard, Tony Snell, who was held scoreless in the game after he had only scored three points in their first matchup. But that’s what separated these two teams on this night — SDSU got virtually nothing from its top guard Chase Tapley, and the Aztec offense completely stalled for long stretches. New Mexico, meanwhile, was just fine without Snell as their other stars shined and a multitude of other players added important contributions. UNM certainly proved that they were the deeper and more complete team on Wednesday night.
What sets New Mexico apart from its competition is its tremendous defensive effort that has continued to improve throughout the season. Coming into Wednesday, the Lobos ranked third in the entire country in both defensive efficiency (85.9) and opponents’ true shooting percentage (45.9%). And during conference play, they’ve been nearly as good at 88.5 defensive efficiency and 47.8% opponent true shooting. Those are dominant defensive numbers that could be predictive of serious future success if they’re able to maintain enough offensive firepower the rest of the way. And that hasn’t been a problem at all, as the Lobos have a top-30 offensive efficiency for the season and are second in the league for the stat during conference play. Wednesday confirmed that they have that ability, as star forward Drew Gordon went for a huge 17-point, 17-rebound effort, and emerging guard Kendall Williams was unconscious from deep in hitting 5-6 from three and finishing with a game-high 21 points. Add in four reserve players that all played meaningful minutes and made at least two field goals, and this offense looked legitimate even without a significant contribution from Snell.
The Lobos have been constantly overshadowed by the explosive UNLV offense and the wild surprise of San Diego State, but the time is now to re-evaluate the Mountain West pecking order. UNLV still has the most scoring talent in the league, but its Tuesday night performance confirmed two huge fears about the team, those being its soft defense and inability to win away from Vegas. Surrendering 102 points in a road loss at TCU was a bad sign for the Rebels and they now must come into The Pit this weekend, well-known as one of the most raucous home environments in college basketball. Meanwhile, San Diego State just blew their golden opportunity to take the reins of this league, and their lack of talented secondary players was exposed big time. We know for sure that the Mountain West conference now has three locks for the NCAA Tournament. We don’t know for certain if New Mexico is going to be crowned league champion, but they certainly look like the team to beat heading into this weekend’s showdown.