Nightmare Against St. Louis Aside, New Mexico is in Fine Position in Mountain WestPosted by dnspewak on January 2nd, 2013
Danny Spewak is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report following Saint Louis’ 60-46 victory over New Mexico at Chaifetz Arena. You can follow him on Twitter @dspewak.
For 20 minutes, Steve Alford watched in silence as his New Mexico team suffered through a nightmare of a first half against Saint Louis on Monday night. Sixteen turnovers. Five field goals. Thirteen points. In one series of possessions, the Lobos coughed the ball up seven times in a row. Alford could have torn off his jacket, stomped his feet, berated his players or, god forbid, thrown a chair like his mentor Bob Knight did, but he instead sat obediently on the bench and hardly made a sound. At the conclusion of the half, Alford glided slowly to the locker room with his head down. No words, no outward emotion.
It was like he was preparing for something.
Fast-forward to the 9:26 mark of the second half, when Alford signaled for a timeout. It was the last thing he did all night. “We came out of a timeout and the coach was gone,” SLU forward Cody Ellis said. “I don’t even know what happened.” He wasn’t the only one confused. “I did not see a thing,” said Jim Crews, the Billikens’ interim head coach. They were too busy huddling up and discussing how to continue pulverizing 20th-ranked New Mexico en route to a 60-46 victory. On the other end of the floor, though, Alford’s calm demeanor had turned into a full-fledged temper tantrum. Immediately after the timeout, the first whistle blew. Technical number one. Seconds later, the second whistle blew. Technical number two. The official then burst his right hand into the air, clenched his fist and signaled for an ejection of Alford, leaving New Mexico in the hands of associated head coach Craig Neal. “I’ve been doing this for 22 years,” Alford said.” I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s nothing I can say. Obviously, if I say things, I get suspended, so I’m obviously not doing that.”
Then, he said things:
“I called a timeout three times, finally got the timeout, and I said, ‘that was a foul.’ I said, ‘that’s a foul,’ got T’d up and I said ‘that’s still a foul,’ got my second technical. So I left the game and I’ve never seen anything like that in 22 years of officiating. But it is what it is and hopefully the commissioner’s office can watch tape… I’m not in agreement with that call or those two calls. It’s amazing… not to cuss, to say ‘that’s a foul’ twice, I’ve never seen that done.”
Alford’s story aside, the ejection had little to do with the outcome of the game. Although a brief spurt after halftime cut Saint Louis’ lead to nine points, the Lobos never found their stroke from beyond the arc and simply could not recover from a 20-point halftime deficit. “That was about as poorly a first half as our team could play,” Alford said. “It was just one of those first halfs. We’ve never had one like it.”
That’s exactly why New Mexico’s drubbing at the hands of the Billikens does not define this team or this season. The Lobos will almost assuredly drop out of the Top 25 once again next week (on Monday afternoon, it re-entered the polls after a one-week hiatus), but they begin Mountain West play with a 13-2 record, six wins away from The Pit and strong computer numbers. New Mexico beat Connecticut on a neutral floor in November. It won at Cincinnati last week in an ugly victory, but an ugly victory over a top 10 team nonetheless. Plus, despite a slip-up to Nate Wolters and South Dakota State, it boosted its resume with modest but important wins over Valparaiso, Davidson, George Mason and Indiana State. “I like what we’ve seen all year long,” Alford said. So no matter how silly Saint Louis made New Mexico look, remember that the Billikens just got star point guard and veteran leader Kwamain Mitchell back from injury, and they also showed last season they’re more than capable of these kinds of defensive performances. Saint Louis finished in the top 10 in defensive efficiency a year ago. They’re in the top 40 right now and will likely ride that to a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
Call Monday night a mulligan for New Mexico, then. “We kept them to 13 points in the first half, and that’s unreal for a Top 25 team,” Ellis said. “They’ve got a lot of scorers.” On this particular night, it didn’t seem like it. Only Alex Kirk seemed to really excel scoring-wise (4-of-9 from the field for 13 points), and even he turned the ball over five times. Leading scorer Kendall Williams missed three of four attempts from beyond the arc and needed 14 shots to score 15 points. Williams and tandem point guard Hugh Greenwood combined for six assists and seven turnovers, and their teammates had no response to the Billikens’ defensive pressure. Teams like Saint Louis will appear all over the Lobos’ Mountain West schedule, though, so no more mulligans allowed. It starts with UNLV in the league opener on January 9. “For us to play the schedule we’ve played, and be 13-2… our schedule strength is top 20, our RPI is top 10,” Alford said. “And we’re 6-1 away from home. It’s not like we’re 13-2 and we’ve played a bunch of home games.”
Add it all up, and New Mexico’s in fine position heading into Mountain West play. It has flaws, certainly, especially on the offensive end. Alford’s team is very solid defensively and on the boards – as it proved against Cincinnati – but it hasn’t shot consistently from the perimeter. On Monday night, shots weren’t falling, but it was more than that. Everything went wrong. Alford will just have to hope that doesn’t happen against conference foes, especially considering the unprecedented strength of the Mountain West in 2012-13. “Our last place teams were Air Force and Boise State, and they’re really good basketball teams,” Alford said. “This is good preparation. We’ve got nine days to get ready for UNLV, but our league is very demanding.”
The Mountain West sits in second place in the conference RPI ratings. UNLV and San Diego State are Top 25-caliber, Wyoming is undefeated, Colorado State beat Washington and Virginia Tech by a combined 56 points, and every team but Fresno State has a winning record. Unlike with the referee who booted Alford from the game, there’s no misunderstanding here with the Mountain West. It’s as good as any league outside of the Big Ten. And as for that official who, according to Alford, ejected him for saying ‘that’s a foul?’ “I don’t know him that well,” Alford said. “He may not speak English.” Maybe not. Even if he didn’t, you wouldn’t need the English language to see New Mexico hardly played like New Mexico on Monday night.