With Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams all out of eligibility, New Mexico head coach Craig Neal was already going to have a much different team to work with in 2014-15. And on Friday the program lost another starter, as redshirt junior center Alex Kirk will enter the 2014 NBA Draft. The news was first reported by The Lobo Lair, with Geoff Grammer of the Albuquerque Journal confirming the news with Kirk’s father.
Kirk redshirted in 2011-12 after undergoing back surgery and he returned to the court a much-improved player in 2012-13, posting averages of 12.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game on a team that won the Mountain West’s regular season and tournament titles.
As a junior Kirk averaged 13.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game, earning spots on the Mountain West’s third team All-Conference and All-Defensive teams. A 7-footer from Los Alamos, N.M., Kirk is currently ranked 28th amongst juniors by Draft Express.
With three starters from this season’s Mountain West tournament champion squad moving on the most experienced Lobos will be guard Hugh Greenwood and wing Deshawn Delaney, with rising junior Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas and rising sophomore Cullen Neal also being rotation players in 2013-14. New Mexico currently has two signees in its 2014 class in forwards Xavier Adams and Joe Furstinger.
There were signs before the start of the 2014 season that Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico’s senior forward, was primed for an all-Mountain West Conference, and possible MWC player of the year, performance. A native of Australia and an atypical graduate of the games Australia Institute of Sport — as he told Sports Illustrated’s Kelli Anderson, “I was fairly small, 6-7 or 6-8, 200 pounds, and I was a pretty terrible athlete to be honest” — Bairstow suited up for two Australian national teams this past summer, and his performance in the World University Games (Australia earned its first ever medal in international play) was a primer to what would eventually be a special season for Bairstow.
The 6-foot-9 Bairstow put on a considerable amount of muscle and has maintained it during the season, and after a considerable boost in percentage of minutes played, Bairstow is having a career year, converting 57 percent of his twos and posting the team’s second-best offensive efficiency rating. As good as Alex Kirk, Bairstow’s frontcourt mate, has been in the post, Bairstow had been better, and has transformed into the focal point of opposing defenses’ gameplan.
However, when the conference announced their player of the year selection earlier today, Bairstow was noticeably absent. The award went to San Diego State’s Xavier Thames, a worthy choice if the honor was handed out a few weeks ago: including the mid-February loss to Wyoming through the end of the Aztecs’ regular season, Thames has made just 37.5 percent of his twos and 20 percent of his threes. The only Aztec with the ability to consistently break his man off the dribble and create his own — and his teammates — offense, Thames has been blanked. Meanwhile, over a similar time span, Bairstow has converted nearly 60 percent of his twos and recorded just double-doubles. Thames had a great season, and he is one of the primary reasons that Steve Fisher’s club has spent most of the season atop the top 25 rankings, but I’m not the only one who believes Bairstow was robbed: according to Wyoming big Larry Nance Jr., “Thames had an incredible year! Congrats to him. But I just thought Bairstow was incredible this season.”
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.