Mountain West Basketball: New Mexico vs. Iona–Preview, Odds, Prediction
Lobos, Gaels meet in The Pit
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Game 11: New Mexico Lobos (10-0) vs. Iona Gaels (7-2)
When: Sunday, December 18th – 4:30 MT
Where: The Pit; Albuquerque, NM
How To Watch: FS1
Stream: FuboTV, get a free trial
Odds: New Mexico -2 Over/Under 150
Get your popcorn ready. Sunday evening is shaping up to be the biggest basketball game in the Pit in years, for two huge reasons. First, the product on the floor has been the best UNM fans have seen in a long time, probably stretching back to the Lobos last NCAA tournament appearance in 2014. Of more intrigue for this date however, is the opponent, and specifically, the coach of the opponent. Iona comes to town, traveling from just outside of New York City in New Rochelle. They bring with them a 7-2 record, several good wins, and a KenPom rating 20 points higher than New Mexico’s. They also bring a noticeable name holding the clipboard – Rick Pitino. The Hall-of-Famer is the father of Lobos boss Richard Pitino of course. And while the two have faced off twice prior, the younger Pitino has never had the squad he has right now.
New Mexico will take the floor late Sunday afternoon as one of only five unbeatens out of 363 Division I teams, after the Saturday losses by Virginia, and fellow MWC mate UNLV. For much of Monday night’s outing versus San Francisco, it looked as though the dreaded look-ahead game was going to jump up and bite the Lobos, as they trailed USF until the waning moments. But following a similar script to the attention-getting win at St. Mary’s, UNM made big shots and got key stops late to pull out the victory.
That sets the stage for a mammoth game with plotlines galore. Both Pitino’s have tried to dismiss the personal storylines that will inevitably be part of the narrative. Obviously it means a little bit more for each of them to be able to beat the other. And just as obviously, neither one will admit that. Which is fair, because most of us would play it the same way. The fact of the matter is, these are two really good basketball teams, and while it’s still December, it’s never too early to start thinking resumé building wins. For New Mexico, they will have countless opportunities to pick up such wins in the gauntlet that the Mountain West Conference schedule is shaping up to be. For Iona, their chances are running out. They will be a huge favorite to win the MAAC regular season title, as they did a year ago. But they were also upset in the conference tournament and were not able to secure an at-large bid. Wins like this one on the road against an undefeated team would go a long way for the Gaels.
Stylistically, Iona is going to do what most Rick Pitino teams do; play aggressively and play fast. He will press, change defenses and look for mismatches offensively. Despite playing at a very quick pace, they take excellent care of the basketball, ranking near the top in avoiding turnovers. Conversely they are forcing almost 17 a game, also in the top 10% in the nation. Other metrics they excel in are overall defensive efficiency, and two-point field goal defense. This should not be a surprise, Pitino has been a master for almost 40 years in the college game, of switching up defenses to keep the opponent off-balance.
There are two areas the Gaels have struggled in. One is getting to the foul line – they have only attempted 124 all season, compared to 269 for the Lobos. That is a huge discrepancy in New Mexico’s favor. The other is their defensive rebounding. Overall they have a negative rebounding margin, and they surrender nearly 12 offensive boards a game. UNM is not dynamite on the glass, but they will still have an edge in this one.
Who are the players to look out for? Let’s start with 6’9” Nelly Junior Joseph, who is a beast in the paint on both ends of the floor. He will bang with Morris Udeze most of the night, is a great defender, and finisher inside. There are a couple of other inside players, but no one else who comes close to equalizing the production of Junior Joseph. Stretch forward Quinn Slazinski had a great start to the season, but has been out with a bone bruise and is not expected to play. The rest of the scoring comes from JUCO transfer Daniss Jenkins, whose talent Pitino has raved about, and Walter Clayton Jr. They are averaging 18 and 16 respectively, and have similar shooting stat lines. Overall, Iona is not a huge volume 3-point shooting team, but their percentages are slightly above average. One more player to keep an eye on is 6’4” 5th year senior Berrick JeanLouis. JeanLouis is Pitino’s lock-down defender. He is not overly concerned with shooting or scoring, he is out there to help the team win. He will likely draw the assignment of trying to slow down Jamal Mashburn Jr.
For the Lobos, they showed some mettle on Monday night. USF is a solid, well-coached team with talent to boot (just ask UNLV, who had their undefeated start ended by the Dons on Saturday). Those are the kind of character-building wins that have been lacking in Albuquerque for several years. Now, can they back it up with another huge effort? As we looked at when breaking down the Gaels, you need to handle their pressure. New Mexico has been tremendous protecting the basketball all season, but they have not seen pressure the caliber of which they will see on Sunday. Fortunately they have an experienced backcourt.
While Mashburn might be held in check a bit by JeanLouis, Jaelen House will be more than ready to pick up the slack. Additionally, Mashburn has shown he is content to let the offense come to him, even if that isn’t until the second half. A forced/bad shot is akin to a turnover, and the Lobos have been great at limiting both. Udeze is going to be challenged by Junior Joseph, but he is will have some chances on the glass. A key in this one will be Josiah Allick. We’ve pointed it out before, but he just makes winning plays. He got shaken up against USF and missed several minutes, and that’s when the Dons built their first half lead. Allick came back in and restored order. It’s the old hockey +- statistic. Allick is a big time + player, he needs to be on the floor for the Lobos. It would also help if they could get some offense from either Donovan Dent or Javonte Johnson. It’s going to be difficult for both Mashburn and Udeze to reach their lofty averages, so any help from the role players would be welcome.
This should be a dandy, and possibly the biggest variable of all has yet to be discussed – The Pit. The buzz for this one is palpable. By mid-week over 90% of tickets were sold, and it’s sure to reach sellout status, not an easy feat one week before Christmas. Also, most on-campus home arenas seat in the 7-8k range. The Pit can go upwards of 15,000. Sure, some like Syracuse, Kentucky, Kansas and a few others have attendance figures above that number, but not many. Iona has played one true road game all season, a loss at Hofstra 83-78, in front of 3800 fans. In fact, in the Gaels nine games, there have been a combined 12,000 spectators. They will see more than that Sunday alone.
Expect some momentum swings as well. Neither team is especially deep, and while each would prefer to play up-tempo, the feeling here is that once the initial adrenaline rush subsides, there might be a few periods of slow-down methodical play, if for no other reason than to conserve energy for the late stages. It would also be a massive surprise if either team approached their season average in points – 83 for the Lobos, 78 for the Gaels. This one may resemble Monday night’s game for New Mexico fans, trailing for portions, slowly working back into it, and then doing what needs to be done down the stretch. It says here, Pitino Jr. earns career win number one over Pitino Sr., and in the process the Lobos keep their undefeated streak intact.
Prediction: New Mexico 71 Iona 66