“It is definitely more physical than the teams we played in the pre-season,” Pack coach David Carter said.
The Wolf Pack, 11-9 overall and 2-4 in league play, has lost its four Mountain West games this season by an average of 14 points. They now have to travel to Albuquerque, N.M., to take on the first-place New Mexico Lobos on Saturday night (5:05 p.m.).
“They are a very physical team, great size,” Carter said.
The Wolf Pack, which has faded in the second half of all its league losses, is learning the hard why about what the Mountain West is all about.
“You have to expect contact,” Carter said. “It’s not going to be easy.”
Carter has repeatedly called the Mountain West “a man’s league” this season.
“The most aggressive team is going to get the call, (from the officials,” Carter said. “And there have been times when we weren’t the aggressive team.”
The Wolf Pack, one of the smallest teams in the conference, is having a difficult time adjusting to the physical play of the Mountain West and seems to wear out physically and mentally in the second half.
“The game is definitely elevated in this league,” junior Jordan Burris said. “All I can do is fight as hard as I can.”
“You can’t think about it too much,” senior Malik Story said. “You can’t think, ‘Oh, I’m going to get hit going to the basket.’ You just have to play through it.”
The Lobos are 18-3 overall and 5-1 in league play but have struggled in their last four games despite the No. 20 national (Associate Press) ranking. They’ve won three of the games but all four were difficult. They only beat Wyoming by four (63-59) on Wednesday, Colorado state by five (66-61) on Jan. 23 and had to go to overtime to beat Boise State (79-74) on Jan. 16. The loss was a dismal performance (55-34) at San Diego State on Jan. 26.
The Lobos, who are coached by former Indiana Hoosiers player Steve Alford, beat George Mason (70-69) and Connecticut (66-60) in a tournament in the Virgin Islands in November but have also lost to South Dakota State (70-65) at home on Dec. 22.
“They do what they do well,” Carter said. “They don’t play outside themselves and that’s why they are so good.”
The Wolf Pack is coming off a 66-54 loss at UNLV on Tuesday night. The Pack has dropped five of its last seven games and will bring a 2-6 road record to Albuquerque. The Lobos, meanwhile, are 10-1 at home, a 15,411-seat arena known as The Pit.
“I’ve heard how crazy it can get down there,” Story said. “But it’s not something we’re worried about.”
This will be the first meeting ever between the two schools. The Lobos are averaging 14,854 at home this year.
“We have to keep the game close to have a chance,” Carter said. “We have to keep the crowd out of it. We’re not going to totally be able to do that but we just have to focus on what we’re doing and not worry about the crowd.”
The Lobos statistically don’t frighten anyone. They are in the middle of the league in just about every statistical category and they are just seventh in scoring (67.1 points a game) and fifth in defense, allowing 61.2 points. They also shoot just .410 from the floor, eighth in the league.
But they win.
“Their guards are very good at running their system,” Carter said.
Alford, a member of the 1984 United State’s Olympic Team that won a gold medal as well as the 1987 NCAA champion Hoosiers, has a 144-49 record in six seasons at New Mexico.
The Lobos’ Kendall Williams, a 6-foot-4 junior guard, is averaging 14.0 points and 4.5 assists. Alex Kirk, a 7-foot sophomore, adds 11.3 points and 7.5 rebounds. Tony Snell, a 6-7 junior, averages 12.0 points a game. Australians’ Hugh Greenwood (7.4 points) and Cameron Bairstow (4.7 points) give the Lobos depth.
The Wolf Pack, though, is more worried about their own problems right now. They were out-rebounded 44-28 at UNLV. Their two post players, Kevin Panzer and Devonte Elliott, haven’t blocked a shot in three consecutive games, the Pack didn’t get any fast-break points against UNLV and point guard Deonte Burton had to play 40 minutes in Las Vegas because Carter only used eight players.
The problems, Carter said, are mainly on the offensive end.
“We’re not helping our defense,” Carter said.
“I feel like we’re waiting for Deonte and Malik to make a play,” said Burris, who scored just three points against UNLV. “We all need to chip in.”
Burris all but said the Pack is playing scared down the stretch in league games.
“We’re trying to make the safe play rather than the best play,” he said.
“When we don’t score for two or three possessions, we start to stand around,” Story said. “Like coach says, we don’t trust each other. We’re trying to make the safe passes. We second guess everything.”
The Wolf Pack, obviously, would like nothing more than to beat the league’s first-place team on the road.
“I’m excited for this game,” Story said.
“It’s a big game but every game in the Mountain West is a big game,” Burris said. “Every game is going to be a dogfight.”