Alex Kirk

Alex Kirk

New Mexico center Alex Kirk to enter 2014 NBA Draft

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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.

Cameron Bairstow, a Mountain West Player of the Year snub?

Cameron Bairstow
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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.”

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.

Improved offensive execution keeps No. 25 New Mexico tied atop Mountain West

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Fifteen days ago No. 25 New Mexico blew out Nevada in Albuquerque, shooting 55.2% from the field and assisting on 27 of their 32 made field goals in the 90-72 victory. And considering just how well Craig Neal’s team played for much of that game, it can be argued that the final margin was a bit deceiving.

That outcome served as motivation for Nevada, and for much of the first half the Wolf Pack controlled the rematch. But New Mexico would improve its execution and shot selection, erasing a 14-point first half deficit and winning 72-58 in Reno.

The Lobos settled for perimeter shots in the first half, making just one of the nine attempts from beyond the arc and not committing to going inside. It was clear what New Mexico needed to do in order to get back into the game and to their credit they passed up the jumpers in favor of attacking the basket, ripping off a 10-0 run to end the first half with eight of the points coming in the paint. The other two points came courtesy of two Cameron Bairstow free throws.

That would continue in the second half as the Lobos shot 57.7% from the field, and their improved shooting from deep (5-for-11) was a product of their commitment to getting the ball inside. Bairstow scored 14 of his 22 points in the second half to lead the way, with Alex Kirk (ten points, 11 rebounds) and Kendall Williams (11 points, ten assists) both posting double-doubles for the Lobos. And with those ten assists, Williams became the Mountain West’s all-time assists leader.

Those three veterans are expected to lead the way, and for much of this season they haven’t disappointed in that regard. However against Nevada reserves Cullen Neal and Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas were just as important, contributing 15 points in the second half. And with neither Deshawn Delaney nor Hugh Greenwood being consistent threats to score in double figures, the contributions of Neal and Thomas will be key moving forward for New Mexico.

With the win the Lobos remain in a first-place tie with San Diego State with two games remaining, the latter of which being a showdown at Viejas Arena on Saturday. And if New Mexico executes as they did over the final 24 minutes of Sunday’s win, there’s no doubt that Craig Neal’s team can win the Mountain West outright.

New Mexico makes statement in win over No. 6 San Diego State

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In a season that has seen the Mountain West as a whole not perform as well as in recent years, No. 6 San Diego State emerged as the best team in the conference. With a resume that includes a win at Kansas, the Aztecs looked to be the class of the conference entering their game at New Mexico on Saturday night. The Lobos were the preseason favorite to win the Mountain West, and their improved play on the defensive end of the floor is one reason why Craig Neal’s team was just a game back in the standings.

That defensive effort was on full display at The Pit, with New Mexico limiting San Diego State to 32.3% shooting from the field as they won 58-44. Xavier Thames is San Diego State’s best offensive player and New Mexico made life difficult for the senior guard, limiting him to just seven points on 3-for-15 shooting. And when Thames struggles, San Diego State is going to have problems offensively.

Two areas in which San Diego State has been able to hurt opponents throughout conference play are on the offensive boards and in their ability to get to the foul line. Steve Fisher’s team normally does a good job of attacking the paint, with Thames, J.J. O’Brien and Winston Shepard III all being capable dribble penetrators. New Mexico took that away, and it didn’t help matters that Mountain West’s top team in regards to free throw rate attempted just three free throws (missing all three) on the night.

San Diego State did manage to rebound 37% of its missed shots, but they converted those extra opportunities into just 14 second-chance points. For a team that isn’t particularly adept at knocking down perimeter shots those areas are critical, and the Lobos did an excellent job of preventing the Aztecs from taking advantage. The perimeter defenders moved well laterally, and center Alex Kirk did a very good job of blocking (five blocked shots) and changing shots around the basket.

New Mexico limited San Diego State to 0.75 points per possession, with the effort surpassing their performance in a home win over San Jose State (0.78) as the Lobos’ best in conference play. And with all due respect to the Spartans, clamping down on San Diego State is a far more impressive feat.

Offensively New Mexico shot 50% from the field, and once again senior forward Cameron Bairstow led the way. The Australian scored 26 points on 11-for-18 shooting to go along with nine rebounds, and in a game that featured two other Mountain West Player of the Year hopefuls (Thames and UNM’s Kendall Williams) Bairstow may have vaulted himself to the top of the list.

Who will win Player of the Year? Which team will win the Mountain West regular season title? That remains to be seen, and it’s likely that the rematch at Viejas Arena on March 8 will determine both answers. In the first meeting this season between the Aztecs and Lobos, it was Craig Neal’s team that made the emphatic statement.

Report: Alex Kirk’s injury is to lower leg, officially day-to-day

Kirk Williams Bairstow Thomas Greenwood
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The big news coming out of Fort Collins on Saturday wasn’t that New Mexico went into Moby Arena and knocked off Colorado State, it’s that they did so without Alex Kirk on the court.

Kirk sat out with an undisclosed injury and was officially listed as day-to-day.

The Lobos never went back to New Mexico after the win, opting to head up to Logan, UT, to prepare for Tuesday’s game at Utah State instead. According to a report from Geoff Grammer of the Albuquerque Journal, a determination as to Kirk’s playing status had not yet been made.

That’s not unusual. For starters, if Kirk’s injury isn’t all that serious, it may simply be a situation where he needs to figure out if he can tolerate the pain he is dealing with. The Lobos also don’t want to tip their hand to the Aggies. Stew Morrill may prepare his team differently if he knew Kirk would be out of the lineup.

Grammer also provided a bit more context on what the actual injury is:

The Journal can confirm that initial reports indicating Kirk has a foot injury, including one from the official @UNMHoops Twitter account that used the phrase “foot injury,” were erroneous. Kirk’s injury is in the lower leg, not in the foot or ankle. Doctors did not find a break when they examined him after Tuesday’s win over Boise State or when they did further testing Wednesday, Neal said.

Losing Kirk would hurt, but it obviously isn’t a death blow for the Lobos. Cameron Bairstow has been fantastic this season, and with Hugh Greenwood and Cullen Neal finally healthy, this team has enough weapons to survive.