Kendall Williams


Mountain West Tournament: No. 20 New Mexico wins rubber match, third straight tournament title

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One week ago No. 20 New Mexico wilted in the face of No. 8 San Diego State’s 1-3-1 trap, failing to make a field goal over the final 12 minutes of their 51-48 defeat. And in the early stages of the second half in the Mountain West title game it looked as if that would once again be the case, with the Aztecs using a 1-2-1-1 full-court press to force the Lobos into becoming stagnant and committing multiple turnovers.

But the Lobos would regain their poise, and a Kendall Williams dagger from 25 feet out with 26 seconds remaining sealed the 64-58 victory and a third consecutive Mountain West tournament title for the Lobos.

The Lobos managed to win despite turning the ball over 15 times, which resulted in 21 San Diego State points. Two of the reasons why: their half-court defense and a nine-point advantage at the foul line. New Mexico limited San Diego State to 35.7% shooting from the field, and leading scorer Xavier Thames scored his 15 points on 6-for-16 shooting before fouling out with 13 seconds remaining.

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New Mexico’s big men weren’t as dominant as they were a week ago in San Diego, but both Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk did their part in Las Vegas. Bairstow, the tournament MVP, scored 17 points and grabbed nine rebounds with Kirk adding eight points and 11 rebounds. But once again New Mexico had issues with San Diego State’s active defenders, and the role players were the ones who stepped up in the second half.

Hugh Greenwood (12 points), Deshawn Delaney (seven points, five rebounds) and Cullen Neal (a key four-point play that also resulted in Thames’ fourth foul with 11:03 remaking) all made key plays in the second half, supplementing the efforts of Williams and Bairstow (17 points, nine rebounds). That difference kept New Mexico from wilting in the face of the SDSU pressure as they did a week ago, setting the stage for Williams’ epic three-pointer as the shot clock expired.

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This will be key for New Mexico moving forward, because as good as their three leaders are the Lobos will need those contributions if they’re to advance in the NCAA tournament. New Mexico will also need to improve their handling of pressure whether it’s in the half or full-court, because that’s something they’ll likely have to deal with at some point.

But if anything Craig Neal saw important progress made by his team in Las Vegas. Instead of folding the Lobos answered the challenge and landed the critical blow, winning yet another Mountain West tournament crown 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.

New Year’s Resolutions: New Mexico Lobos

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Over the course of the holiday week, we at College Basketball Talk will be detailing what we believe will be the New Year’s Resolutions of some of the nation’s most talented, most disappointing, and thoroughly enigmatic teams. What can we say, we’re in a giving mood.

Who else made Resolutions? Click here to find out.

WHAT DOES NEW MEXICO PROMISE TO DO MORE OF?: Get consistent production from Cullen Neal and Deshawn Delaney.

    • Why it will happen:

With starter Hugh Greenwood missing the last three games with a wrist injury, the Lobos needed guys to step up and after a disappointing effort against New Mexico State both Neal and Delaney rose to the challenge. In wins over Marquette and Grand Canyon, Neal averaged 21.0 points per game and shot 13-for-22 from the field. As for Delaney, he averaged 8.5 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, finally beginning to look comfortable in head coach Craig Neal’s system. The added experience will help these two in their quest to earn more opportunities and (just as importantly) help supplement the production of Cameron Bairstow, Alex Kirk and Kendall Williams.

    • Why it won’t happen:

The biggest concern at this point may be how much they allow Greenwood’s return to impact their production. Greenwood will be ready to go when the Lobos open Mountain West play on January 4 against Colorado State, and he’s going back into the starting lineup. With both Delaney and Neal being talented players, the impact of Greenwood’s return ultimately comes down to maturity. If they understand the situation and simply continue to work, there won’t be any issues.

WHAT DOES NEW MEXICO SWEAR THEY WILL DO LESS OF?: Miss shots. (Yes, it really is this simple.)

    • Why it will happen:

After struggling from the field in losses to Kansas (33.3%) and New Mexico State (34.6%), the Lobos rebounded against Marquette (43.6%) and Grand Canyon (52.1%). Clearly the talent to shoot better than they have is there, with Williams winning Mountain West Player of the Year last season and each of New Mexico’s “big three” being in the running for the individual honor this season. UNM currently ranks 10th in the Mountain West in field goal percentage and 11th in three-point percentage, but they have the pieces needed to improve those rankings.

    • Why it won’t happen:

Well shooting was an issue last season as well, and that was with current Chicago Bull Tony Snell on the team. New Mexico’s shot 48% or better in five games this season, and in four games they’ve shot lower than 40% from the field. While New Mexico has the talent to be a better shooting them, the fact of the matter is that they’ve been unable to make the strides taken stick and that’s been a problem. In games in which they’ve shot 40% or less UNM is 1-3 this season, with the lone win coming over UAB.

New Mexico loses to No. 13 Kansas as Big Three’s supporting cast struggle

Kirk Williams Bairstow Thomas Greenwood
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No. 13 Kansas got 21 points and nine boards from Perry Ellis to lead four players in double figures as the Jayhawks upended a good New Mexico team in Kansas City, 80-63.

There were a number of good signs for Bill Self’s team on Saturday. Naadir Tharpe played really well, especially down the stretch of the second half as Kansas pulled away. He finished with eight points and nine assists, facilitating the Kansas offense and getting the ball to the hot hand in a position that he could score. I liked the analogy that ESPN commentator Fran Fraschilla made: the point guard spot is the key for Kansas, and while Frank Mason is talented, he’s their third-down back right now. Tharpe needs to be the guy that’s running the show.

He was tonight, and we saw what the Jayhawks can be.

My bigger concern is with New Mexico.

We all know that this group has a Big Three: Kendall Williams at the point and big boys Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk in the paint. Bairstow and Williams showed up today, notching 24 points each. Kirk was in foul trouble the whole game, which was one of the deciding factors. When he was out, it gave Ellis and Joel Embiid — who finished with 18 points — a chance to dominate the paint. When he was in, he couldn’t play defense the way he wanted to play defense for fear of picking up another foul.

That may have decided the game, but it also exposed an issue that could creep up on New Mexico this season: role players. Hugh Greenwood is not shooting the ball well. Cullen Neal has been inefficient and, at times, downright ineffective. Pancake Thomas hasn’t been more than “just a guy” while JuCo transfer Deshawn Delaney has been a disappointment.

When UNM’s Big Three are all playing well, this group is going to be tough to beat. But the fact of the matter is that there are going to be nights like this. Kirk is going to get into some foul trouble or Williams is going to shoot the ball poorly? Who are the guys that step up and make playing? Who fills that void? Tonight, the rest of the New Mexico roster combined to score 10 points on 2-for-18 shooting.

Noodles needs role players to, well, play their role.

No. 19 New Mexico escapes but will need to be better defending dribble penetration against UMass (VIDEO)

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Entering this weekend’s Charleston Classic as the lone ranked team in the event, the New Mexico Lobos are the team many expect to leave with the trophy on Sunday evening. But the Lobos ran into trouble in the form of the UAB Blazers, whose ability to attack the basket off the dribble in the second half had UNM squarely on the ropes in the game’s final seconds.

But a Kendall Williams runner from about 30 feet out forced overtime and an Alex Kirk three in the final seconds of the first overtime led to a second extra session, and the end result for the Lobos was a hard-fought 97-94 victory. Williams finished the game with 29 points, ten assists and six rebounds, leading four New Mexico players in double figures. Cameron Bairstow added 21 points before fouling out, and Cleveland Thomas knocked down a couple key shots in the extra sessions to keep the Lobos afloat.

Neither team shot all that well, with UNM making just 34.1% of its shots from the field and UAB slightly better at 37.5%, and on an afternoon that saw the Lobos shoot 8-for-38 from beyond the arc they still managed to outscore UAB by nine points in regards to points off of three-pointers. UAB was able to get some things done off the dribble, which may not be evident given their overall field goal percentage, but this wasn’t a conventional game from a statistical standpoint. And no individual stat line epitomizes this more than that of UAB’s Rod Rucker.

Rucker finished the game with 18 points, 20 rebounds and seven assists, which has the appearance of a Herculean effort at first glance. However Rucker did most of his damage (scoring-wise) from the foul line, as his 12-for-13 effort from the charity stripe offset a 3-for-22 afternoon from the field. UAB was well-positioned to pick up a quality non-conference victory on multiple occasions late, but poor defensive execution (and fouling in the act of shooting) left the door open for the Lobos to steal the game. And as a good team would, New Mexico took advantage of the opportunity.

Next up for New Mexico is UMass, whose guards are more than capable of exploiting the issues the Lobos had defending dribble penetration. It can be argued that this is part of the process in adjusting to the new guidelines regarding freedom of movement, but New Mexico will have to adjust quickly if they’re to beat a UMass team that has already knocked off Boston College and LSU and can certainly use another solid non-conference win for their resume thanks in part to BC’s lackluster start.

New Mexico led the Mountain West in defensive efficiency last season, and with four starters back the pieces are there for them to once again be formidable on that end of the floor. And even though a matchup with UMass could prove problematic, it will help them down the line as they look to win another conference title.