In anticipation of the New Mexico vs. Stanford game this afternoon, here are two keys to the game.
New Mexico wins if… its big men can dominate. All season long, Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow were rugged offensive threats against Mountain West competition. The Lobo big men combined to batter normally undersized frontcourts in their conference to the tune of 33.9 points and 16.1 rebounds between them. Each of them took better than 40% of their shots right at the rim and each converted at least 68% of those shots at the rim. In short, the New Mexico bigs were dominant in and around the paint all year long. For Stanford, meanwhile, despite having plenty of size (New Mexico has slightly more size than the Cardinal, but Stanford is still in the top 15 nation-wide in terms of effective height), has long been regarded as soft in the middle. Stefan Nastic checks in at 6’11”, but is not a natural athlete and is more prone to committing a foul than effectively challenging shots at the rim. Dwight Powell, likewise, is more comfortable away from the hoop or in transition. Only 6’7” Josh Huestis is particularly good defending in the interior, and even that is sketchy. Still, Stanford has done a fairly good job all year limiting looks (just 32.6% of opponents shots come at the rim) – and more importantly, limiting successful attempts (of those shots, opponents make just 56.6%, a good defensive percentage for shots at the rim) – around the rim. If New Mexico is able to regularly convert buckets around the paint, the Lobos should be golden on Friday morning; if they’re harder than usual to come by, they could be in for a dog fight.
Stanford wins if… they’re able to isolate their offensive playmakers. In a lot of ways, these teams look very similar. Both are solid, if not spectacular on both ends of the floor. Neither team commits, not forces, a lot of turnovers; neither team pays a ton of attention to grabbing offensive boards, while both clean the defensive glass pretty well, and neither team is particularly adept at shooting a ton of threes. But one area where the Cardinal have a decided advantage is in athleticism and the ability for their offensive players to get their own shots. Across the board, things are almost even between these teams, but guys like Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown and Powell are particularly good at getting their own shots. For instance, Randle takes more than a third of his shots at the rim, makes 60% of those shots and under a quarter of those shots come off assists. What do those particular set of numbers indicate? A guy who beats his man off the bounce and gets to the rim on his own. His two-point jumper numbers are even more extreme; he takes 27% of his shots in such a fashion, makes 46.9% of them and is assisted on less than 2% of those shots. In other words: dribble, dribble, dribble, pull-up jumper. Powell’s and Brown’s numbers are less extreme, but both of those guys have long shown the ability to beat their defender in man-to-man defense and find their own shot. While New Mexico puts together good team defense, if the Cardinal are able to spread the court with effective three-point shooting (they’re knocking in 37% from three when they do get three-point looks this year), it could clear up the middle of the court for Stanford’s superior offensive creators to do their thing.