Scouting Report: New Mexico

Can you feel the excitement surrounding Air Force basketball? What looked like a thoroughly unremarkable season three weeks ago has turned into a major national story. The Falcons are now playing at the big-boy table for high stakes. The mere fact that they're in the NCAA tournament hunt is a substantial achievement in its own right. Let's see if Dave Pilipovich's pupils can handle the heat.


As February – the month before the beginning of an obscure 68-team basketball tournament – unfolds, each and every Air Force player needs to latch onto one simple idea: The next five and a half weeks of mortal combat are not a burden, but an opportunity. Let that point sink in for a moment.

Plenty of teams in the United States are under immense pressure to make the NCAA tournament, and have a lot of work to do in order to secure their Dance cards. Kentucky and North Carolina are uncomfortably close to the bubble – probably in the field as of today, but far from guaranteed. If the Wildcats or Tar Heels failed to make the NCAAs, the fan bases of the two teams would genuinely suffer. The two states would fall into a deep depression and wonder how such a crisis could have emerged. A great, black void would swallow the lives of Big Blue and Carolina backers until the start of the 2013-2014 season in November. That's pressure.

Other schools without Kentucky's and North Carolina's basketball pedigrees were expected to make the NCAAs this season but are currently in bad shape: Maryland, Xavier, Colorado, Washington, Texas, Florida State, and Saint Joseph's. If any of those teams fail to make the Big Dance, they will be sorely disappointed.

Air Force does not occupy such a position.

By any reasonable standard, this – the first full season of coach Dave Pilipovich's tenure in Colorado Springs – was supposed to be a year of building and development, a year in which the program found its footing and set the table for a big 2013-2014 campaign. However, the Falcons appear to be a year ahead of schedule. They competed so marvelously and performed with noticeable skill this past Saturday against a credentialed San Diego State side that is going to make the NCAAs for the fourth straight season. SDSU wasn't overlooking Air Force, either – not when one remembers that Pilipovich engineered an upset of Team Tenochtitlan last season with a much less potent lineup.

When teams make an unexpected leap from being an also-ran to a legitimate and unexpected NCAA tournament contender in the middle of a college basketball season, the new levels of campus-wide buzz, national media scrutiny, and respect from opponents can all transform the psyche of that team in negative ways. A mentally liberated club that had been performing without an onerous sense of pressure is suddenly weighed down by the enormity of the moment and the awareness that something valuable is on the line. The residents of Colorado Springs and any other Rocky Mountain city can appreciate this: The air gets harder to breathe at a higher elevation. It can all be very overwhelming, and the human brain doesn't respond as well as it used to.

As Air Force begins life as a bubble team – a team very much in the mix for the Big Dance – the Falcons have to remind themselves that they weren't expected to get this far this quickly. Air Force isn't under pressure to win the way Kentucky and North Carolina are. The Falcons aren't expected to go Dancing the way Maryland and Xavier are. The next five and a half weeks offer this team an opportunity to overachieve even more; this period of time is not a burden, or at least, it must not be allowed to become a chore. If the Falcons can firmly lock in that part of the psychological equation, they're probably going to do well.

NEW MEXICO AT-A-GLANCE

New Mexico's history as a program is quite fascinating. The Lobos play in one of the special gymnasiums in college basketball, "The Pit" in Albuquerque. College basketball fans are very much aware of The Pit's place in the history of the sport. Yet, when the University of New Mexico hosted the 1983 national title game between North Carolina State and Houston, the Lobos had not yet established a strong basketball brand of their own. They made the Sweet 16 in 1968 and 1974, but earned only one subsequent NCAA appearance (in 1978) by the time UNM rolled out the red carpet for Jim Valvano and Phi Slamma Jamma. It took 13 years – from 1978 to 1991 – for New Mexico to return to the NCAAs.

In the 1990s, Dave Bliss – before he permanently disgraced himself by paying players and trying to cover up numerous NCAA violations at the University of Baylor – enjoyed the most fruitful period of his career in Albuquerque, leading Los Lobos to seven Big Dance appearances in a nine-year span. When Bliss left, the bliss left Albuquerque for 10 seasons, as UNM made only one NCAA appearance in that period of time. The 13-year gap from 1978 through 1991 was nearly matched by the program's near-total dry spell from 1999 through 2009. (UNM made the Dance in 2005, but that was it.)

As the 2009-2010 season began under third-year coach Steve Alford (who came to Albuquerque in 2007), the natives were restless in the Land Of (something less than) Enchantment. The Lobos had such a substantial home-court advantage to tap into, but that advantage was unable to be called upon due to deficient coaching and performance. UNM encountered a full decade of largely unfulfilled hopes at the start of the new century, a decade which represented the most wasteful period in the program's history. At least the NCAA drought from 1978 through '91 was not built on the back of steady excellence; two special seasons, six years apart (in 1968 and '74), do not a program make. It was much more disappointing in a larger historical context that New Mexico stopped winning after becoming an annual NCAA tourney team in the 1990s. Alford, in year three, knew that if he didn't do something special in that 2009-2010 season, he was probably going to be gone.

The point guard for Indiana's 1987 national championship team – a man used to performing under pressure – delivered the goods just in the nick of time.

New Mexico soared in that 2010 season, gaining a No. 3 seed and reaching the second round of the NCAAs. The Lobos made the second round last season as a No. 5 seed and are on pace to be a No. 4 or No. 5 seed this season, maybe a third seed if they can max out in the coming weeks. Alford is in the process of making UNM a regular tourney team once again, as was the case under Dave Bliss in the '90s. A program that didn't have much of an identity when it hosted the Final Four in 1983 has now become a destination spot in the Mountain time zone.

The 2012-2013 edition of the Lobos is built on defense and more defense. New Mexico allows an average of just 61.2 points per game. Alford's athletes have lost only three games this season, and in two of them, the Lobos fell only because their offense failed to show up. UNM scored just 46 points at Saint Louis (a bubble team) and 34 in a "throw into the trash can" aberration at San Diego State. This team has played poorly on defense only twice all season, and one of those two defensive stumbles came in the season opener on Nov. 13 against Davidson, an entirely understandable turn of events. (New Mexico won, 86-81.) In many ways, this team's only unacceptable performance came on Dec. 22 in a home-court loss to South Dakota State (70-65). Gritty wins over Connecticut (66-60), Cincinnati (55-54), UNLV (65-60), and Colorado State (66-61) have formed the backbone of a very solid season for New Mexico, one in which the South Dakota State loss should be seen as the only genuine blemish.

NEW MEXICO STAT PACK – STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS

Field goal shooting percentage: 41.6. National rank: 247 (out of 345).

Two-point field goal shooting percentage: 45.4. National rank: 247.

Free throw shooting percentage: 73.6. National rank: 40.

Points allowed per possession: 0.905. National rank: 46.

Field goal percentage defense: 39.7. National rank: 44.

Two-point field goal percentage defense: 42.2. National rank: 25.

Starting Lineup

Center – Alex Kirk –
Sophomore, 7-0, 250 2012-13: 11 points per game, 7.3 rebounds per game, 1.5 blocked shots per game

Kirk is – as you'd expect of a team with New Mexico's gleaming stats at the defensive end of the floor – a substantial anchor for Los Lobos in the paint. Kirk's interior defense was instrumental in the 55-54 win at Cincinnati just after Christmas Day. He will probably give Taylor Broekhuis fits in this contest. The more intriguing storyline will be the ability of Michael Lyons and Todd Fletcher to attack in ways that get Kirk out of position and unable to provide enough defensive help for New Mexico.

Forward – Cameron Bairstow – Junior, 6-9, 250; 2012-13: 8 ppg, 4.7 rpg

What becomes apparent when you look at Bairstow is that he carries the same amount of weight as Kirk does, but with three fewer inches of height. Bairstow is a genuine muscle man, but he's not exactly undersized for a power forward. You can see that, like Colorado State with Pierce Hornung and Colton Iverson, New Mexico has a true center and power forward. It is not a team with undersized forwards that have to play center, and that's a big reason why the Lobos are so formidable at the defensive end of the floor. New Mexico does not have to worry about getting bullied or overpowered in the low post. Tournament basketball is generally halfcourt basketball, which means that as long as New Mexico does not play a highly skilled three-point shooting team or a full-court pressure team in March, it will have a chance to make the school's first Sweet 16 trip since 1974.

Guard – Tony Snell – Junior, 6-7, 200; 2012-13: 11.8 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.7 apg

Snell is unafraid of the moment. He will take crunch-time shots and do what he can to score. He hits 37.1 percent of his threes. With his size, he can attack the rim and get into the paint with comparative ease, making him a very tough assignment for Air Force and every other Mountain West opponent. His length on defense is also bothersome. You have to move the ball crisply to beat Snell and UNM's other defenders. You will not be able to beat this team with a sledgehammer inside, and you also won't be able to beat this team with one-on-one, stand-around ball. You have to make Snell move and set up screens and cuts that displace UNM's defenders.

Guard – Hugh Greenwood – Sophomore, 6-3, 205; 2012-13: 7.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.6 apg, 1.1 steals per game

Greenwood's numbers look pedestrian, with the exception of his rebounding, which is quite impressive for a player with his (lack of) size. The native Australian has, however, shown that he can light up the scoreboard and carry this team at times. Last Saturday against Nevada, Greenwood led the Lobos in scoring (15 points), rebounding (7 boards) and assists (6). He is a pest – the highest compliment one can use – as a defensive player. He gives this team a flinty, feisty edge at the defensive end of the floor. He needs to be taken as seriously as Snell and the next player on the UNM roster:

Guard – Kendall Williams – Junior, 6-4, 185; 2012-13: 13.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 4.5 apg, 1 steal per game

Williams is a rich man's Hugh Greenwood. Like Greenwood, he posts an assist-turnover ratio of at least 2.0 to 1. (Greenwood's is 2 to 1 on the dot; Williams checks in at 2.1 to 1.) Williams, though, is quicker and a much better foul shooter (80 percent at the line compared to Greenwood's 61.9-percent clip). Williams is the endurance man on the Lobos' roster, clocking almost 35 minutes per game, at least five more than any other player. One thing that emerges from the full survey of UNM's starting five is that nobody is smaller than 6-3. This is a big team that gets smaller only when it goes to its bench. Speaking of that…

Bench

Alford uses an eight-man rotation, and it's a well-defined one. Whereas other coaches try to fiddle with their lineup combinations, Alford has settled on his starting five and three reserves he trusts. The three bench players UNM counts on are all guards: Chad Adams, Demetrius Walker, and Jamal Fenton. Like Greenwood, Adams and Walker need to be taken seriously as scorers. Walker scored 12 points on Saturday against Nevada, while Adams – a 48-percent three-point shooter – chipped in with 10 plus 4 rebounds. Adams, who is 6-6, averages 3.8 rebounds per game as well. Fenton, the one pipsqueak in this eight-man rotation, makes himself useful at the defensive end, collecting 1.2 steals per outing.

Keys to the Game

1) Attack Kirk and Bairstow sensibly.
When facing a team with imposing size, it's important to not rush pell-mell into the paint without a smart plan, but it's also necessary to attack on a consistent basis instead of avoiding a center like the plague. The way in which this game will open up for Air Force is if the Falcons can get Kirk into early foul trouble, forcing New Mexico to go smaller and readjust its rotation. Intelligent ball movement and good floor spacing are non-negotiable requirements for the Academy in this contest. If the Falcons run really good sets in the first half and place an emphasis on getting to the foul line, they can cause the Lobos to pack in their defense, which will in turn set up drive-and-kick situations that will give Air Force open looks at threes.

2) Team rebounding. New Mexico has size and length at most positions on the floor. Its guards are rugged and are willing to throw themselves into the fray on the glass. Air Force has to minimize UNM's second-chance points while also getting some putback buckets of its own. Team rebounding – within an all-hands-on-deck mentality – is a necessity for Air Force against New Mexico, especially in Albuquerque.

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