PHOTO: The Aztecs celebrate after freshman Aguek Arop’s 3-pointer from three-quarters court. (CBS Sports)
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
One road trip.
Two blowout losses.
And just one lead the entire 80 minutes.
It’s getting ugly.
As the season progresses and opposing coaches have more game-tape to scout the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team and its Pillsbury-soft zone defense, it just keeps getting worse for the Lobos.
On Tuesday night (Jan. 15), it was San Diego State’s turn to abuse the defensively challenged Lobos. The Aztecs (10-7, 2-2 in the MWC) never trailed in the 97-77 rout of New Mexico (8-9, 2-3) in San Diego.
The latest defeat came on the heels of the Lobos’ 91-76 loss at Colorado State on Saturday – a game in which UNM used a 10-0 run in the final 88 seconds to keep the score from being more embarrassing.
In the two games combined, the Lobos led just once — 1-0 at CSU.
SOME TICKY TAKES:
LATE-HALF FIZZLES: On Tuesday, San Diego State raced to a 19-8 lead before the Lobos showed some offensive spark. Behind a pair of 3s by senior guard Anthony Mathis, UNM was able to scratch back and force ties at 30-30 and 32-32.
New Mexico had the ball and trailed just 41-39 looking for the last shot of the half, but turned it over. Aztec’ freshman Aguek Arop snatched the loose ball, then launched a shot from just outside of the SDSU lane – and it found nothing but net at the other end, some 70 feet away.
It’s the second game in a row, the Lobos had the ball in the frontcourt with less than 4 seconds remaining in the first half, but turned it over and gave up points.
That Arop shot, and likely some halftime adjustments by SDSU coach Brian Dutcher, crushed any hopes of an upset for the Lobos, who entered the game as 6-point underdogs.
SDSU guard Devin Watson buried three 3s – all open looks from the corners – in the first three minutes of the second half, and the rout was on.
FOOL’S GOLD: I realize I just used that phrase last game, but it’s worth repeating.
Maybe the worst thing that happened to the Lobos, was surviving down the stretch to win its Mountain West opener at Air Force using the 2-3 zone sieve.
UNM had just switched from a man-to-man defense to the zone a few days earlier, and many fans, media and folks inside the program celebrated how UNM coach Paul Weir found the answer in getting his team of mostly transfers on the same page.
But, as I have written since that night, New Mexico didn’t win that game because of its zone.
It won in spite of its zone.
Air Force – particularly forward Lavelle Scottie – bricked one open jumper after another from 10 to 12 feet. The Falcons also were just 2-of-15 from 3-point range, with nearly all attempts coming with wide-open looks.
Other Mountain West coaches must have been licking their chops when seeing that zone.
Now they are abusing it.
After their incredible 85-58 Pit Game blowout of then sixth-ranked Nevada, the Lobos have lost three straight and have been outscored by a whopping 233-173 points in the last 2 1/2 games — starting with UNLV erasing a seven-point halftime deficit to win in the Pit 80-69 last week.
Then came CSU, then came SDSU.
The Rams shot 56.1 percent (32 of 57) and had 26 assists against UNM. The Aztecs hit 55.1 percent (38-69) on Tuesday with 30 assists.
The Lobos, meanwhile, had 31 assists, combined, in the two games.
POSITIVE POINT: Lobo senior Anthony Mathis is finally getting a break from playing point guard, an unnatural position for the deadly 3-point shooting guard that he was forced to play because of the preseason injury to starting point guard JaQuan Lyle.
On Tuesday, Weir gave his two true point guards, sophomore Keith McGee and freshman Drue Drinnon, a combined 39 minutes on the floor — many at the point.
McGee continues to show that he may be the answer down the road. He hit a pair of 3s and had eight points and three assists. He looks comfortable on the floor and had one of the nicest plays of the night with a left-handed bounce pass around a defender to teammate Carlton Bragg inside. It’s the type of pass the Lobos have been missing from their guard play.
Drinnon was scrappy, going 1-of-3 for four points, two assists and four rebounds. But he got swatted on a jumper and still doesn’t look too comfortable on the floor, although he’s improving. But the two point guards combined for five turnovers.
The Lobos still need to find ways to free up Mathis for shots. Right now, he’s mostly doing it on his own and mostly from deep in 3-point range. He hit all four of his attempts in the first half, finished 6 of 10 behind the arc and had a team-high 21 points.
INSIDE MAN: Against UNM, who isn’t?
I continue to laugh at those who talk about the Lobos not being able to stop quick guards. It simply doesn’t matter the opponents’ position — everyone gets to the paint against the Lobos when they want, except, maybe, the towel boy. He has to wait until bodies crash to the floor.
That 8- to 12-foot spot at the left elbow of UNM’s zone that Air Force couldn’t hit shots? Everyone else is. Or they dish to a man cutting inside for a layup, or they drive for a layup themselves.
PAINT IT BLACK: Opponents are having little trouble getting the ball in the paint against the Lobo zone — something the television announcers keep getting stunned by — and the results are usually in the black. The Aztecs outscored the Lobos a whopping 50-16 in the paint at Viejas Arena.
REBOUNDING: Don’t ask.
OK, I’ll tell you anyway.
The Lobos, one of the nation’s tallest teams, was hammered again in rebounding: this time 38-25. San Diego State had 14 offensive boards while the Lobos had eight.
MENSAH MEMBERSHIP: It doesn’t take an IQ in the 98th percentile to understand how exciting the Lobos’ zone can be for an opponent. SDSU 6-foot-10 frosh Nathan Mensah’s career high in points entering Tuesday night was 11 points. He blew by that in the game’s first 11 minutes, scoring 12 points on open layups and short, open jumpers.
Mensah finished with 16 points on 7-of-7 shooting and added seven rebounds.
COME AGAIN?: How similar were the Lobos’ losses to CSU and San Diego State? On Saturday, the Rams led 91-66 with 1:28 left. On Tuesday, the Aztecs led 91-65 in the final minutes.
SO WHAT NOW?
Great question. I’m sure Lobo coach Paul Weir is wondering as well.
I’ll discuss some ideas, and invite readers and callers to do the same on Thursday when I will be on live at 5 p.m., with Brandon Vogt on BV Tonight on KKOB (770 AM/94.5 FM). Maybe someone can figure something out before the Lobos return to Dreamstyle Arena — The Pit on Saturday at 4 p.m. against MW bottom-feeder Wyoming (4-13, 0-4).
Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for four decades and is one of the most decorated sports journalists in the state’s history. Smith has won more than 30 combined awards in print, television and radio. He is the editor in chief of Enchantment Sports. Contact him at mark.enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com.