Will it be the Wolf Pack that suffered one of its most embarrassing defeats in recent memory when it lost to lowly San Jose State 66-64 at home on Feb. 18? Or will it be the Wolf Pack that just four days later turned in its biggest win on the road (75-56 at Air Force) in over seven years?
“It’s a mystery to me why we seem to play better and shoot better on the road,” Pack coach David Carter said.
Carter and his players admitted the stunning loss to San Jose State might have been the wake-up call this inconsistent Wolf Pack team has been looking for all season.
“I would have liked the wake-up call to come with a win,” joked Carter, whose Wolf Pack is now 13-15 overall and tied for fourth place in the Mountain West at 8-7. “But we just didn’t bring it against San Jose State.”
A more focused Wolf Pack destroyed Air Force, holding the Falcons to just 37 per cent shooting from the field. The Pack, led by Deonte Burton’s 21 points, shot 52 per cent from the floor.
“Our margin of victory surprised my staff, my team,” Carter said.
It was the largest margin of victory in a road game in Carter’s five-year head coaching career and the biggest for the Wolf Pack on the road since a Mark Fox-coached team beat Oregon State 75-47 on Nov. 15, 2006.
“Everybody was definitely more focused,” Burton said. “You could even tell before the game. In warm-ups everybody is usually kind of relaxed. But before that game everybody seemed different.”
“That was a big, big win for us,” said senior Jerry Evans, who had 11 points and 13 rebounds at Air Force. “Our need for a win was really bad.”
Carter said he noticed a different look in the eyes of his players heading into the Air Force game.
“I did see a different sense of urgency,” he said.
The loss to San Jose State seemed to open everyone’s eyes.
“That loss was a blessing in disguise,” said guard Michel Perez. “That game hurt everybody. It really focused us and showed us that we need to get better.”
The Wolf Pack will have to get even better to beat the No. 25-ranked Lobos. New Mexico is now 22-5 overall and tied for first in the Mountain West with San Diego State at 13-2 after a 67-58 win over Utah state on Tuesday. The Lobos dominated the Wolf Pack 90-72 on Feb. 15 in Albuquerque as post players Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk combined for 53 points.
“I feel like we were embarrassed in that game,” said Perez, who had four 3-pointers and 18 points against the Lobos two weeks ago. “That game left a bad taste in our mouth and we’re going to try to get rid of it on Sunday.”
“We owe them a game,” Burton said.
Burton feels the Lobos didn’t really see the true Wolf Pack team on Feb. 15. The Pack point guard, after all, suffered that entire weekend from what he calls “a flu bug” and wasn’t at full strength. Burton flew to Albuquerque the day of the game and scored just 12 points, though he did have eight assists and no turnovers in 33 minutes.
“I wasn’t ready to play that game,” Burton said. “I really can’t remember too much about it. All I know is that it was not good.”
“We’ll be a different team with Deonte at 100 per cent,” Evans said.
It’s not likely, though, that Burton even at full strength could have prevented a Pack loss that afternoon. The Lobos led the entire game and never allowed the Wolf Pack closer than 14 points in the second half. New Mexico made 55 per cent of its field goals and seemed to score at will with the 7-foot Kirk (29 points) and 6-9 Bairstow (24).
“They (Kirk and Bairstow) are a handful,” Burton aid. “They’re monsters.”
Sunday’s game will feature some of the top players in the Mountain West.
Bairstow (20.2 points a game) and Burton (19.9) are the top two scorers in the Mountain West. Lobo guard Kendall Williams is fourth at 17.1 points, Kirk is 14th at 14.0 and Evans is 20th at 13.0. Williams also leads the conference in assists (4.9 a game) and steals (1.7) and Burton is second in assists (4.1) and third in steals (1.6).
“New Mexico can score from all five positions,” Carter said. “It’s going to be a tough match-up for us.”
It is an especially tough match-up for the Pack inside against Kirk and Bairstow, who are both very physical. Bairstow had 14 points and 11 rebounds and Kirk had 13 points and 12 boards in New Mexico’s win over Utah State earlier this week.
“Those guys will be professionals someday,” Perez said. “They’ll both play for money one day.”
Carter is confident that A.J. West (6-9) can handle either Kirk or Bairstow inside though West struggled mightily in Albuquerque on defense and also on offense with just two points and five rebounds in 24 minutes.
“I’ve always said that A.J. will be up and down this season,” Carter said. “He’s still learning at this level.”
Cole Huff, who is a slender 6-8, also struggled on defense in Albuquerque.
“I’m not sure if Cole is strong enough,” Carter said.
Carter said Ronnie Stevens (6-8) will play a key role off the bench in support of West and Cole though he added its not likely he’ll play both West and Stevens on the floor at the same time.
“That would help us defensively but it would hurt us offensively,” Carter said.
The Wolf Pack might be able to exploit the Lobos defense with 3-pointers. New Mexico is just 10th in the 11-team Mountain West in 3-point defense, allowing opponents to shoot .358 from beyond the arc. The Pack, which always relies on its outside shooting because of its lack of consistent scoring inside, made 11-of-21 3-pointers (52 per cent) in Albuquerque.
“Every game is different,” Carter said.
The Wolf Pack has just two regular season games remaining after Sunday (March 5 at Boise State and March 8 at home against UNLV). The top five teams in the conference receive a bye in the first round of the conference tournament March 12-15 in Las Vegas.
San Diego State (13-2) and New Mexico (13-2) have clinched the top two spots in the conference. That leaves UNLV (9-6), Boise State (8-7), Nevada (8-7), Wyoming (8-7) and Fresno State (8-8) with legitimate chances to finish third, fourth or fifth. Colorado State (6-10), Air Force (5-10), Utah State (5-11) and San Jose State (1-14) currently reside at the bottom of the conference. Every team, though, qualifies for the postseason tournament.
“All I know is that I’m going to leave it all on the floor,” Burton said. “I’m just going to give it my all and just go all out.”