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No. 21 New Mexico falls victim to unexpected defensive wrinkle

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An Alex Kirk shot with 12:05 remaining in No. 21 New Mexico’s game at No. 10 San Diego State gave the visiting Lobos a 41-25 lead, and it looked as if the Aztecs were in serious trouble. UNM big men Kirk and Cameron Bairstow were playing well, proving to problematic for the San Diego State front court. But then SDSU head coach Steve Fisher made a strategic move seldom seen since the Aztecs used this wrinkle in their win at Kansas in early January.

He went to an active 1-3-1 zone, and the Lobos were thoroughly confused by the new look. New Mexico (24-6, 15-3) would score just seven points in the final 12:05, losing 51-48 as San Diego State won the Mountain West regular season title.

Bairstow finished the game with 20 points and seven rebounds, with Kirk adding 14 to go along with 11 boards. But with San Diego State (27-3, 16-2) going to the 1-3-1 New Mexico’s two most effective offensive threats did not attempt a single shot in the final 12 minutes, with a Bairstow free throw with 7:27 remaining being the only point either would score during that decisive stretch. To say the least New Mexico was confused by the look, and they had no counter either.

MORE: Just how good is No. 10 San Diego State?

Kendall Williams having to sit out part of that 26-7 finish with four fouls didn’t help but he was ineffective for most of the night, finishing with seven points (3-for-10 FG), four assists and five turnovers. As a team New Mexico committed 11 turnovers in the second half, with San Diego State scoring 16 points off of those mistakes. So not only did the strategic move help the Aztecs neutralize the UNM big men, it also served as a spark for an offense that struggled to get anything going.

Could there be a rubber match of sorts in Las Vegas next Saturday night? Given how well these two teams have performed throughout conference play, that would be the expectation of many. But there are clearly things for New Mexico to work on in advance of the Mountain West tournament, particularly their zone offense. New Mexico was hit with a punch it didn’t see coming Saturday night, and they fell short of their goal as a result.

After blowout of South Carolina, is No. 22 Kentucky a Final Four contender?

Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis (3) guards the ball after a rebound during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Auburn, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, in Auburn, Ala. Auburn won 75-70. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
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It only took 2:26 for official Doug Sirmons to plant two technical fouls on Kentucky head coach John Calipari, and that may have been the worst thing that could have happened to South Carolina.

He poked the bear, and the result was that a ticked off No. 22 Wildcat team proceeded to run the Gamecocks out of their own gym, 89-62.

The star of the show was interim head coach Tyler Ulis, who put together as dominating of a performance as you’ll ever see out of a player that stands 5-foot-9. Ulis finished with 27 points and 12 assists, hitting 4-for-8 from three and turning the ball over just once.

Marcus Lee added 11 points and 13 boards, including six on the offensive end, and Jamal Murray had his customary 26 points on 9-for-21 shooting, but the story of this game was Ulis.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seed a player under 6-foot capable of dominating a game the way that Ulis can dominate. Murray can take over with the best of them — we saw it against Florida and Ohio State — but when it comes to the NCAA tournament, this Kentucky team will go as far as Ulis carries them.

And based on the way that he’s played in the last six weeks, that could end up being pretty far. In SEC play, Ulis is averaging 19.4 points and 7.6 assists. He’s scored at least 17 points in 12 of the last 14 games and has notched as least five assists in all 14. He just orchestrated a total mollywhopping of a Frank Martin-coached team that was tied for first place in the SEC while playing without his head coach and on the road.

The issue with Kentucky is the same today as it was a month ago. They’re a two-man team with an inconsistent supporting cast. When their two studs play like this, they can beat anyone in the country. When they don’t, they can struggle against anyone.

But here’s the thing: When Ulis is playing the way that he’s played of late, they don’t really need all that much from their supporting cast. Derek Willis needs to be able to space the floor. Lee and Skal Labissiere need to be able to hold their own against opposing big men.

And when that happens?

Kentucky is clearly the best team in the SEC and good enough to be able to win four straight in the Big Dance and get to a Final Four.

No. 25 Wichita State falls to Northern Iowa as at-large chances take critical hit

Northern Iowa's Matt Bohannon drives in the lane past Wichita State's Conner Frankamp during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Matthew Putney/The Waterloo Courier via AP)
(Matthew Putney/The Waterloo Courier via AP)
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Northern Iowa has been a confusing team to follow this season but the Panthers peaked against a ranked team once again on Saturday in a 53-50 upset of No. 25 Wichita State. While the Panthers looked like a potential at-large NCAA tournament team during the non-conference season with wins over North Carolina and Iowa State, they’ve faltered in Missouri Valley Conference play.

Saturday’s road win at Koch Arena proves that Northern Iowa (16-11, 8-6) is still a credible threat in the conference tournament as they’ve now won six consecutive games. The loss for the Shockers could end their at-large hopes and their 43-game home winning streak — the longest such streak in the nation — was snapped.

A defensive adjustment was the difference for the Panthers as a switch to a 2-3 zone in the first half confused Wichita State’s offense enough for Northern Iowa to jump out to a 38-27 halftime lead. The Shockers (18-7, 12-2) recovered enough to make it a tight game, but Northern Iowa came up with big shots down the stretch to come up with the road win. Klint Carlson was a tough matchup for the Wichita State defense as he led the Panthers with 12 points while Wyatt Lohaus contributed 11.

Wichita State had two good looks from 3-point range to tie in the game’s final 10 seconds, but Ron Baker (12 points) and Connor Frankamp (0 points) both missed. Senior Fred Van Vleet was held scoreless in the first half and finished with eight points on 3-for-15 shooting.

This loss is concerning for Wichita State, not only because they hurt their dwindling at-large chances, but they didn’t look prepared to face the zone and 3/4 court press that Northern Iowa threw at them. The Shockers shot 30 percent (20-for-66) from the field and 22 percent (7-for-31) from 3-point range as they really couldn’t get much of anything going on the offensive end. Van Vleet and Baker couldn’t get their shots to fall and Northern Iowa mustered just enough offense to pull off the win.

As noted before, this win is another confidence builder for Northern Iowa, as they’ve reeled off six consecutive wins after a puzzling 2-6 start in the Valley. It’s also nice that the Panthers won a slow, grind-it-out game on the road over a quality opponent, since the North Carolina and Iowa State wins came in more uptempo settings.

The Missouri Valley is looking like a one-bid league as we inch closer to Arch Madness and with Wichita State falling to Illinois State and Northern Iowa recently, the conference tournament could have a lot of teams with a realistic chance for the autobid.