2013-2014 Season Preview: No. 22 New Mexico Lobos

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. The rest of our Top 25 Countdown can be found here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 29-6, 13-3 (1st MWC); Lost in the Round of 64 to Harvard

Head Coach: Craig ‘Noodles’ Neal (1st year at New Mexico)

Key Losses: Tony Snell, Demetrius Walker, Chad Adams, Steve Alford (coach)

Newcomers: Cullen Neal, Merv Lindsay, Obij Aget, Deshawn Delaney, Arthur Edwards, Devon Williams

Projected Lineup

G: Kendall Williams, Sr.
G: Hugh Greenwood, Jr.
G: Cullen Neal, Fr.
F: Cameron Bairstow, Sr.
C: Alex Kirk, Jr.
Bench: Merv Lindsay, So.; Cleveland Thomas, So.; Nick Banyard, So.

They’ll be good because …: New Mexico lost Tony Snell to the NBA Draft a year early and saw their head coach Steve Alford sign an extension and then a contract with UCLA in the same month. It may seem like a new era is beginning in Albuquerque, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. New head coach ‘Noodles’ Neal has been with the program for years, and with four of the team’s five starters returning — with Cullen Neal, the coach’s son — replacing Snell, there is a lot to like here. New Mexico went 29-6 last year, winning a very tough Mountain West by two full games and earning a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. Yes, they (once again) lost far too early in the tournament, bowing out to No. 14 seed Harvard, but do’t overlook just how good the Lobos were last year.

Bottom-line? Reigning MWC Player of the Year Kendall Williams returns, as does all-conference center Alex Kirk. Throw in bruiser Cameron Bairstow and a pair of quality wings in Hugh Greenwood and Cullen Neal, and the Lobos have the pieces and the talent to play their trademark physical defense while opening things up more on the offensive end of the floor.

source: Getty Images

But they might disappoint because …: Losing Snell hurts for a couple of reasons. For starters, he was the team’s best perimeter defender thanks to his length and athleticism. New Mexico doesn’t have anyone that can replace that. But he was also the team’s best perimeter shooter, knocking down 39% of his threes a season ago. Neal is the guy expected to fill that void on the offensive end of the floor, but remember that he’s a freshman coming off of an appendectomy. There’s no guarantee he’s going to be able to contribute big numbers immediately, if at all.

The bigger issue may actually be New Mexico’s depth, especially in the front court. Kirk is one of the nation’s most underrated centers, and Bairstow is a land warrior that may never dunk in a game but is impossible to push out of position. Beyond that? Well, there’s seven-foot freshman Obij Aget. And Kansas transfer Merv Lindsay, who managed to see action in 12 games with the Jayhawks. And Nick Banyard, who was unproductive in 30 games last season. The MWC is as much of a grind as any league in the country, and if Neal cannot develop his bench, the Lobos could be worn down by the end of the season.

Outlook: New Mexico’s loss to Harvard in the NCAA tournament is going to end up being overplayed, and as a result the Lobos are likely going to be underranked heading into the season. Honestly, I think we probably underrated them at No. 22. The Mountain West has not had good NCAA tournament showings in recent years, but that doesn’t change the fact that the league is loaded and balanced, especially with Utah State joining the ranks this year. New Mexico went 5-3 on the road in MWC play, a feat that is almost as impressive as the fact that the Lobos won the league by two full games.

But until UNM — and the MWC as a whole — proves that they can compete on a national stage when the lights are the brightest, this team is going to perpetually start the season lower than they could be. Is this the year that they finally break through and get out of the first weekend?

Thursday’s Three Things To Know: Drexel’s historic comeback, Arizona survives, Houston doesn’t

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1. DREXEL COMPLETED THE BIGGEST COMEBACK IN DIVISION I HISTORY

Drexel trailed Delaware 53-19 late in the first half on Thursday night.

They won 85-83.

Both of those things are 100 percent true and 100 percent happened.

2. ARIZONA WON WITHOUT ALLONZO TRIER … BARELY

No. 14 Arizona was forced to play without Allonzo Trier on Thursday night at Oregon State after Trier tested positive for a banned substance again. The Wildcats led by 12 points in the first half, but Wayne Tinkle’s club slowly but surely chipped away at the lead. They were ahead with less than a minute left with OSU missed two wide-open threes on the same possession before a pair of Rawle Alkins free throws forced overtime.

Alkins — who finished with 16 points on the night — took over in the extra frame, but if there is anything that we learned in the 45 minutes that Arizona played without Trier available on Thursday, it’s that they are going to struggle to win games if they do not have their second-leading scorer available.

3. TUBBY SMITH FINALLY BEAT A RANKED TEAM

Tubby Smith has been crushed throughout his tenure with Memphis, and deservedly so. The Tigers are not selling tickets and are not competing at a level that is expected of that program in the post-John Calipari era. That said, they aren’t terrible. On Thursday night, Memphis beat No. 23 Houston in FedEd Forum — Smith’s first win over a ranked opponent since he took over the job — to alleviate some of the heat that has been directed his way this season.

Houston, on the other hand, is probably pretty safe when it comes to inclusion into the NCAA tournament at this point, but they sure have had a weird seven days. It started with a win over Cincinnati, then turned into a 21-point win at Temple and concluded with a loss to Memphis. Such is life in the AAC, I guess.

Ford leads No. 22 Saint Mary’s past Pepperdine, 75-61

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MORAGA, Calif. (AP) — Jordan Ford had 18 points and a career-high 10 rebounds, and No. 22 Saint Mary’s rolled to a 75-61 victory over Pepperdine on Thursday night.

Calvin Hermanson scored 14 points and Tanner Krebs added 12 for the Gaels (26-4, 15-2 West Coast Conference). Jock Landale scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds.

Ford shot 7 for 11 from the field and 4 for 6 from 3-point range and fell two points short of tying his career scoring high.

Saint Mary’s remained one game behind Gonzaga (26-4, 16-1), a 77-72 winner at San Diego, in the WCC with one regular-season game to play. The Gaels can earn a share of the WCC regular-season title with a victory at home against Santa Clara and a Gonzaga loss at BYU on Saturday.

Saint Mary’s point guard Emmett Naar, who injured his left ankle late in the first half against Portland on Saturday, started and had three points and six assists in 14 minutes, most of those in the first half.

Trae Berhow and Knox Hellums each scored 13 points for Pepperdine (4-25, 1-16).

Ford had 14 points and six rebounds in the first half, when Saint Mary’s built a 46-26 lead.

Pepperdine guard Eric Cooper Jr., who averages 13.2 points, did not make the trip because of a shoulder injury. Udenyi Amadi started in his place.

BIG PICTURE

Pepperdine: The Waves lost their eighth straight game and are locked into sole possession of last place in the WCC. Pepperdine will be the No. 10 seed in the upcoming conference tournament.

Saint Mary’s: The Gaels won their second straight after losing back-to-back games to Gonzaga on Feb. 10 and San Francisco on Feb. 15. Saint Mary’s had won a school-record 19 straight games before falling to Gonzaga.

UP NEXT

Pepperdine hosts Portland on Saturday in its WCC regular-season finale. The Waves fell 85-76 in overtime at Portland on Feb. 1.

Saint Mary’s hosts Santa Clara on Saturday in its final WCC regular-season game. The Gaels beat the Broncos 81-57 on Jan. 11 at Santa Clara.

Thornton, Rivers lead Memphis past No. 23 Houston

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Jimario Rivers and Raynere Thornton each scored 21 points, helping Memphis beat No. 23 Houston 91-85 on Thursday night.

Rivers also grabbed nine rebounds and Thornton made four 3-pointers as Memphis (17-11, 8-7 American Athletic Conference) earned its third straight victory.

Rob Gray had 30 points and seven assists for Houston (21-6, 11-4), which entered the Top 25 this week for the first time this season. Armoni Brooks and Corey Davis Jr. each scored 15 points.

The Cougars led 43-37 at halftime, but they shot 32.3 percent from the field in the second half. The Tigers made 54 percent of their shots while rallying for the victory.

Memphis went ahead to stay with a 22-8 surge that made it 76-68 on Mike Parks Jr.’s basket with 6:28 remaining. The Tigers closed it out at the line, making 29 of 36 attempts for the game.

Houston had won five in a row. It went 18 of 20 at the line.

BIG PICTURE

Houston: The Cougars, one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the conference, went 4 for 15 from beyond the arc in the second half. They also surrendered their most points this season.

Memphis: Leading scorer Jeremiah Martin left in the first half with a lower body injury. Thornton picked up the scoring after the break, scoring 19 points in the second half.

UP NEXT

Houston: Entertains East Carolina on Sunday.

Memphis: Travels to UConn on Sunday

No. 6 Gonzaga rallies to beat San Diego, 77-72

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SAN DIEGO (AP) — Killian Tillie scored 17 points, Rui Hachimura added 16 and No. 6 Gonzaga beat San Diego 77-72 on Thursday night to clinch at least a share of the West Coast Conference title.

The Bulldogs (26-4, 16-1 WCC) defeated the Toreros (17-12, 8-9) for the eighth straight game and for the 19th time in their last 20 meetings.

Olin Cater III led San Diego with 21 points.

After trailing at halftime and falling behind by eight points in the second half, the Bulldogs didn’t seize the lead until midway through the second half, when Tillie’s 3-pointer made it 52-51.

It was a back-and-forth affair from there, with the Toreros relying on their stingy defense to slow the up-tempo Bulldogs. But Gonzaga had too much firepower and was helped by four straight free throws from Hachimura when taking the lead for good with four minutes remaining.

Gonzaga demolished San Diego in last year’s visit by 58 points. The Bulldogs built an early six-point lead in this one but San Diego bounced back, tying the score at 27 with five minutes left on the first of three straight 3-point baskets by Carter. When he hit his second one, San Diego had a three-point advantage, its first edge since the game’s opening bucket.

Tyler Williams’ mid-range jumper gave San Diego a 35-30 lead and it was 37-34 at halftime. San Diego finished the first 20 minutes by converting 4 of 7 3-point shots.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: When Gonzaga fell behind early in the game, it was the first time it had trailed in four games. … The Bulldogs have earned at least a share of the WCC title in 17 of the past 18 seasons and 18 of the last 20. … Gonzaga is the only team in the nation with seven players to score at least 20 points in a game this season.

University of San Diego: The highest-ranked team the Toreros have beaten is No. 14 UCLA in the 2002-03 season. … Forward Cameron Neubauer was honored before the game on senior night.

UP NEXT

Gonzaga is at BYU on Saturday night.

San Diego is at San Francisco on Saturday night.

Carsen Edwards scores 40 points, No. 9 Purdue beats Illinois 93-86

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Carsen Edwards scored career-high 40 points and Dakota Mathias added 18 to help No. 9 Purdue outlast Illinois in a 93-86 victory on Thursday night.

The Boilermakers were without their second-leading scorer Vincent Edwards but had no problem scoring.

Purdue shot 58.3 percent from the field and 47.8 percent from beyond the 3-point line. Edwards and Mathias each had four from behind the arc.

There were eight lead changes in the first half, highlighted by two big runs. With just under 10 minutes left Edwards stole the ball and went down for a huge dunk to spark a 17-6 run for the Boilermakers. The Illini responded with a 10-3 run to close out the half trailing 43-38.

Illinois stayed within striking distance the rest of the game, but ultimately Purdue’s size and Edwards scoring were too much. The sophomore scored 25 of his points in the second half, including a monstrous dunk on Trent Frazier with just under seven minutes to play.

The Boilermakers also outrebounded the Illini 33-20.

Leron Black led Illinois with 28 points, notching his fourth-consecutive 20-point game.

BIG PICTURE

Illinois continues to struggle in close games. The Illini have now lost 10 games this season by single digits.

After losing three straight games, Purdue has reestablished itself in the Big Ten with two close victories over Penn State and Illinois. The Boilermakers are one win away from tying the second most victories in school history.