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.
Michigan State has climbed on the back of star senior wing Denzel Valentine early in the season but they’ll undoubtedly need more help as the season goes on if they want to sustain their current top-5 ranking. One of the keys to the Spartans could be the on-going health of sophomore point guard Lourawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn, who is battling a foot injury.
According to a report from Kyle Austin of MLive.com, Nairn has been putting on a protective boot the last few months to help battle plantar fasciitis as the guard has been playing in practices and hasn’t had his minutes reduced in games.
The injury looked like it was hurting Nairn’s early-season play, but he’s been very good in two games at the Wooden Legacy in California this week, so it could be that he’s getting more used to playing through the pain of the injury.
If Nairn is healthy and capable of contributing, he’s a huge boost to Michigan State because he’s one of the fastest players in college basketball and an additional ball handler on the floor. Through six games so far this season, Nairn is averaging 5.3 points and 4.7 assists per game as he’s been one of the team’s best distributors.
Plantar fasciitis can be a tough injury to fight through, so we’ll have to see if this affects Nairn as the season goes along.
GAME OF THE DAY: George Washington vs. No. 24 Cincinnati, 1:30 p.m.
Two 6-0 teams clash at the Barclays Center in what could be an important game for NCAA tournament resumes of both teams. The Bearcats picked up their most legitimate win over Nebraska, but the Colonials pose as a more real threat after they beat Virginia at home earlier this season. Cincinnati hasn’t shot the ball well in recent wins, but they’re beating up opponents on the glass and the defense has been solid. George Washington is coming off of a win over Tennessee in which they held off the Volunteers in the second half. The Colonials have lost 20 of their last 23 against ranked opponents, but another win over a top team would look great for them going forward.
THIS ONE’S GOOD TOO: No. 4 Iowa State vs. Illinois, 6:00 p.m. (CBSSN)
This game is apart of the Emerald Coast Classic in Niceville, Florida as the Illini could desperately use a win after a 3-3 start. Illinois head coach John Groce and his team are feeling the pressure for a big win on a neutral site after falling to North Florida, Providence and Chattanooga earlier in the season. The No. 4 Cyclones easily dispatched Virginia Tech earlier in the event and have found a nice balance on offense with the emergence of senior big man Jameel McKay inside.
SIX THINGS TO WATCH FOR
- N0. 2 Maryland has struggled to put away teams early at times this season and they’ll try to change that behavior when they host Cleveland State.
- Staying in the Big Ten, No. 16 Purdue hosts Lehigh. With a game at Pitt and against New Mexico looming, could this be a trap game for the Boilers?
- Nebraska and Tennessee take the floor in consolation action at the Barclays Center. The Huskers need someone besides Shavon Shields and Andrew White to step up in the scoring column while Tennessee is getting huge numbers from senior guard Kevin Punter.
- Two 4-0 teams will meet in Brooklyn as Louisville takes on Saint Louis (7:00 p.m., ESPN3). Neither team has faced a significant test this season and this is the Cardinals’ first game away from home.
- An intriguing night game to keep an eye on is Belmont traveling to BYU (8:00 p.m.). The Bruins are as well-coached as any team in the country and forward Evan Bradds has been playing great ball to start the season. The Cougars don’t have a high scorer like they did in the past, but Kyle Collinsworth is a triple-double threat every time he steps on the floor and BYU has a lot of weapons around him.
- UAB and Virginia Tech battle in one of the more intriguing consolation games of the Emerald Coast Classic. Both teams are coming off of disappointing losses but have a shot to make things better on the trip with a solid win on Saturday.
OTHER NOTABLE GAMES
- Bryant at Georgetown, 11:00 a.m. (FS2)
- Bucknell at Penn State , 12:00 p.m.
- Tennessee-Martin vs. Mississippi State, 12:00 p.m. (SEC Network)
- Ole Miss at Bradley, 1:00 p.m. (ESPN3)
- Old Dominion at VCU, 3:00 p.m.
- Hawaii at Texas Tech, 3:00 p.m.
- Kent State at Pitt, 3:00 p.m. (ESPN3)
- SIU-Edwardsville at Butler, 4:00 p.m.
- Georgia at Seton Hall, 6:30 p.m.
- Western Illinois at Creigton, 7:00 p.m.
- Colorado State vs UTEP, 7:30 p.m.