College Basketball Coverage: New Mexico’s National Hopes

Gonzaga has moved to the top of the polls, and the debate is underway about whether the midmajor power is really the best team in the nation. But there’s three other teams away from the spotlight of the BCS conferences that have put together sparkling seasons and need to be on everyone’s radar. It starts with the team that some might argue is the one who’s really the best in the west and that’s the New Mexico Lobos.

Let’s start by my admission of hypocrisy in leading with New Mexico. I’ve been knocking the Lobos all year, at least as a #3 seed, which is where ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has them. I further find the notion that the Mountain West Conference is the best in the country—as current RPI numbers claim—to be positively ludicrous. But, as regular readers of TheSportsNotebook’s college basketball coverage know, I’ve been known to be wrong. So in the spirit of due diligence let’s at least break open the New Mexico personnel and see if they have what it takes to make a Final Four run.

New Mexico is led by junior guard Kendall Williams, who had one of the season’s most electrifying performances nine days ago against Colorado State. Williams dropped 46 points and led the way to a win that all but secured the MWC regular season title (the Lobos have since clinched the outright crown). Williams averaged 14 points a game, is a steady playmaker and chips in a little rebounding from the backcourt.

Williams’ running mate is Tony Snell, a double-digit scorer himself. Snell’s intrigue lies in the fact that he goes 6’7” and presents some matchup problems for teams with smaller guards. But that size hasn’t translated into any extra rebounding, and Snell actually gets fewer boards per game than the 6’4” Williams. Either way, the Williams-Snell combo is a big backcourt.

Alex Kirk provides the size down low and the 7-foot sophomore averages 12 points/8 rebounds per game. The steadiness Kirk provides in the post has enabled New Mexico to cover for a lack of three-point shooting. It’s an ironic weakness, given that the head coach is Steve Alford, who once went 7-for-7 from behind the arc in leading Indiana to the 1987 national championship. Alford fills out his lineup with sophomore guard Hugh Greenwood and Cameron Bairstown, both of whom do a credible job of going after rebounds.

There’s no denying how well New Mexico is playing and a lot of how you view them will come down to how you see the Mountain West—if the Selection Committee decides it really thinks this league is the best in the country—or even that it’s close to the Big Ten or Big East, I don’t see how you keep the Lobos off the two-seed line and possibly a #1. If you go 25-4 in an elite conference, shouldn’t be that enough to be in at least the top eight nationally? Isn’t it more impressive than Gonzaga’s 27-2 mark in a comparatively much weaker league?

I don’t hold to this view of the conference—I think it’s got four or five teams who can make a legitimate NCAA Tournament case, but there’s no one I consider a threat to go deep into the Dance. A case in point would be that New Mexico really doesn’t have any signature moments outside the league—they lost to South Dakota State, and on New Year’s Eve to St. Louis. Unless Williams has another electric explosion in him, I just don’t see how the Lobos beat other good teams.

But if you believe in New Mexico, you can get them a good price at the betting window. They’re a 30-1 shot to win the national title, and I’m sure you can get good numbers on the more reasonable goal of making the Final Four. To play devil’s advocate with my own conclusion, if the play teams with soft interiors that Kirk can exploit, get big games from Williams (let’s just say 20 ppg) and Snell kicks it up just a notch, the Lobos can make a run. I’m not buying that scenario, but I would hardly call it unrealistic.

The two other teams that are rolling in the midmajors start with one of the teams that beat New Mexico, and that’s Atlantic 10 leader St. Louis, and also includes Memphis, currently unbeaten in Conference USA play.

St. Louis: The Billikens might be the hottest team this side of Georgetown, having not lost since January 19, with that streak including two wins over Butler and one over Virginia Commonwealth. St. Louis has no issues shooting the three-ball. Mike McCall can nail it from the backcourt and 6’8” forward Cody Ellis is the classic modern power forward who steps out and hits from the perimeter. Small forward Dwayne Evans is efficient inside the arc, hitting 52 percent from the floor, and Kwamain Mitchell and Jordair Jett fill out a pesky backcourt.

St. Louis’ problem is inside, where they have no post presence. Rob Loe, a 6’11” junior, only averages three rebounds a game and he’s what passes for their interior muscle. I can see St. Louis matching up with most anybody in a one-game shot because of their ability to hit the three-ball, but the inability to get easy points down low argues against them for a Final Four run. St. Louis is currently 25-1 to win the national championship.

In fact, I would argue that New Mexico’s inability to beat St. Louis is a reason to be skeptical of the Lobos, if I can just briefly double back and pile on Alford’s team again. With a smallish backcourt (no one over 6’1” and a complete lack of post play, St. Louis should have been the kind of team that New Mexico was tailor-made to exploit. Instead, they lost by fourteen.

Memphis: I spent a good chunk of my podcast yesterday arguing with co-host Greg DePalma about the merits of Conference USA. It didn’t involve Memphis per se—we were debating Southern Miss’ inclusion in the Dance. I argued that C-USA might not be a power league, but they deserve to have two of their 12 teams make the field. Greg disagreed. This will be another case of your regard for a conference affecting your view of its champion.

The Tigers have secured the regular season title and are 25-4 overall. They haven’t beaten anyone outside the league, but three early losses—Louisville, VCU and Minnesota—were all high-quality, although a recent loss to Xavier hurt my case.

Memphis has very good depth, with eight players all making reasonable contributions. First among equals is junior guard Joe Jackson, who averages 14 points and 5 assists per game, and he gets his points at high efficiency—53 percent from the floor and 48 percent from behind the arc. Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford each fill out the backcourt as solid role players.

The frontcourt lacks a dominant player, but 6’5” forward D.J. Stephens plays bigger than his size and blocks a couple shots per game while getting seven rebounds. Shaq Goodwin and Tarik Black are also steady contributors. I don’t know that I’d pick Memphis to go beyond the second of the NCAA Tournament, but with depth and a good floor manager like Jackson, we should at least keep an eye on them and see how the matchups shake out. The Tigers are currently a 100-1 shot to win the whole thing.

If you believe that this year’s field is wide open, and most observers seem to believe just that, then don’t restrict midmajor evaluations to Gonzaga. Whether you’re a believer or a skeptic, New Mexico, St. Louis and Memphis all deserve your attention before finalizing bracket picks in a couple weeks.