New Mexico was the preseason pick to win the Mountain West due in large part to the fact that they return four starters from the team that won the conference’s regular season and tournament titles last season. And two of those four starters are candidates for Mountain West Player of the Year, with point guard Kendall Williams looking to repeat while center Alex Kirk surprised many with how effective he was after sitting out all of 2011-12 due to a back injury.
Having two stars at one’s disposal is a great place for a first-year head coach (Craig Neal) to start, but if New Mexico’s to win another Mountain West title it will take more than just Kirk and Williams. And in their 73-66 win over a tough San Diego squad that tandem received some valuable help from senior forward Cameron Bairstow.
Williams, who went on a personal 8-0 run in the second half and shot 16-for-16 from the foul line, led the way with 28 points and Kirk added 21 to go along with 11 rebounds. But the 16 points supplied by Bairstow shouldn’t be overlooked either, as he scored 12 of those points in the second half. Bairstow made all four of his shots from the field and shot 4-for-5 from the charity stripe in the game’s final 20 minutes. Bairstow, who represented Australia in the World University Games, entered Saturday with averages of 19.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game with the scoring average more than double his output from a season ago (9.7 ppg).
According to kenpom.com Bairstow’s possession percentage has increased by five percentage points (up to 28.1%) and thus far he’s been even more efficient than a season ago. Bairstow has an offensive rating of 130.7, which prior to Saturday’s action placed him first in the Mountain West by a sizable margin over Utah State’s Jarred Shaw (124.4). Bairstow isn’t going to put up the prolific numbers that we’ve come to expect from Williams and Kirk, with Kirk posting his sixth double-double in as many games on Saturday, but he’s certainly a player opponents will have to account for as the season wears on.
New Mexico certainly has areas they need to clean up, most notably their three-point shooting as they shot 5-for-20 against the Toreros and on the season are shooting a Mountain West-worst 31.4% from beyond the arc. The overall field goal percentage ranked seventh in the Mountain West, and the shooting seems to be an issue of simply knocking down shots as opposed to the quality of shots the Lobos are taking (third in the conference in offensive efficiency).
If they can clean those areas up and continue to get consistent offensive production from Bairstow, New Mexico will once again be tough to beat when conference play rolls around.