Justin Jackson, Alex Kirk

Play of Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow a step in the right direction for New Mexico

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Entering the 2012-13 season, interior play was a major concern for the New Mexico Lobos. On the heels of a season that saw them win both a share of the Mountain West regular season title and the league’s automatic bid, few had any idea what Steve Alford would do to make up for the loss of Drew Gordon.

Alex Kirk sat out all of last season due to a back injury, leaving many to doubt if the 7-foot sophomore could have a significant impact for a team that ranks among the best on the perimeter.

Kirk’s performance on Thursday night in the Lobos’ 55-54 win at No. 8 Cincinnati was another step towards answering those preseason questions, and it’s one the Lobos will need to see more of once they begin Mountain West play.

Kirk was very productive in his 29 minutes on the floor last night, tallying 15 points (6-of-8 shooting), seven rebounds and three blocked shots while Cameron Bairstow added seven points and six rebounds for a UNM front court that outplayed Cincinnati’s big men.

Justin Jackson and Cheikh Mbodj did manage to combine to grab 18 rebounds but they scored just four points, all by Mbodj, and as a team Cincinnati shot a horrid 9-of-38 on two-point shots with most of the attempts being of the challenged variety.

Those issues, especially the lack of offense from their big men, should have Bearcat fans concerned while the performance of New Mexico’s big men will be seen as a positive on the heels of their loss to South Dakota State on Saturday.

“It’s about not quitting,” said Alford following the game. “We probably did an average job of blocking them out, probably could have done a better job on block outs, but what I appreciated about our guys is that when they did get the offensive rebounds they didn’t stop.

“When you watch them on tape, they get offensive rebounds and dunk. They didn’t get too many dunks tonight.”

One of the nation’s best teams in regards to offensive rebounding, Cincinnati did manage to grab 16 offensive boards. But they didn’t take advantage of those second-chance opportunities, as New Mexico finished the game with a 14-7 advantage in second-chance points.

On a night that saw both Tony Snell (4-of-15 shooting) and Kendall Williams (five turnovers) struggle to varying degrees, New Mexico was able to pick up a big road victory thanks to their defense and the performance of their big men.

And with far more productive big men awaiting New Mexico (two points, four rebounds) in Mountain West play (UNLV’s surplus of big men, Colorado State’s Colton Iverson and Wyoming’s Leonard Washington immediately come to mind), Thursday’s performance was an important one.

Because even with the talented guards they have, a productive Kirk and Bairstow make New Mexico a player in the Mountain West race.

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

UNLV’s Stephen Zimmerman out with a knee injury

UNLV forward Stephen Zimmerman Jr. shoots against San Diego State during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Las Vegas. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Sun via AP)
(L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Sun via AP)
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The injury Stephen Zimmerman suffered on Saturday will keep the star UNLV freshman out for at least a week, a source told NBC Sports.

The injury is not thought to be serious, however. Zimmerman may be kept out for longer as a precaution, but that’s a result of the Runnin’ Rebels being in a situation where the rest of their regular season is relatively meaningless.

They’re not getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament regardless of how they finish out league play. With back-up center Ben Carter out with a torn ACL, it’s more important to make sure that Zimmerman, who is averaging 10.6 points and 9.1 boards this season, is totally healthy for the Mountain West tournament.

That tournament, mind you, will be played at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center.

So the Runnin’ Rebels, regardless of how poor they’ve played this season, will always have a chance to land an automatic bid.

Anyway, the more interesting aspect of this story is how Zimmerman injured the knee. It was a completely avoidable play that came after the whistle, but I’m not sure it was what you would call a “dirty play”. You tell me:

VIDEO: Buddy Hield is ‘all money’ on game-winning three vs. No. 24 Texas

Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield (24) takes a shot over Oklahoma State forward Chris Oliver during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Stillwater, Okla., Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Brody Schmidt)
(AP Photo/Brody Schmidt)
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With a little more than three minutes left on Monday night, No. 24 Texas held a 57-51 lead on No. 3 Oklahoma in Norman as Jordan Woodard struggled again and Buddy Hield failed to find the rhythm that he had throughout the first three months of the season.

At that point in the game, Hield was 4-for-14 from the floor with 15 points and four turnovers. He had just missed a pair of wide-open threes

“I couldn’t make a shot,” Hield said after the game. But that changed down the stretch. First, Hield finally got a three to drop. On the next possession, he got all the way to the rim and scored. On the following two possessions, he was fouled on a drive to the rim and hit four free throws. And after missing a pull-up jumper, Hield did this:

“I told coach I wanted the ball,” Hield said, “I saw Lammert coming to bite, so I pulled up.”

“It’s all money.”

Hield is already the favorite to win National Player of the Year, and this performance is only going to help his cause further. Think about it like this: Buddy was not good on Monday night, at least according to his (admittedly lofty) standards. But he still finished with 27 points and shook off a cold shooting night just in time to take over down the stretch.

Now think about this: Hield’s head coach has enough confidence in him to hand him the keys in the final minutes despite the fact that he’s struggling and on a team that has two other players that Lon Kruger trusts on game-winning possessions. Think about it. When Oklahoma beat West Virginia at the buzzer, it was Jordan Woodard that the play was drawn up for. When they beat LSU, it was Isaiah Cousins that got the rock on the final possession while Hield was used as a decoy. .

Want to talk about coaching luxuries?

Kruger has three guards that can shoot, penetrate and score, and penetrate and kick, and one of them is the National Player of the Year that doesn’t mind being used as a decoy.