Mountain West Basketball: Colorado State vs. New Mexico--Preview, Odds, Prediction

Mountain West Basketball: Colorado State vs. New Mexico--Preview, Odds, Prediction

Colorado State

Mountain West Basketball: Colorado State vs. New Mexico--Preview, Odds, Prediction

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Mountain West Basketball: Colorado State vs. New Mexico–Preview, Odds, Prediction


Conference play tips off as Rams visit unbeaten Lobos


https://twitter.com/coachmosser & @MWCwire

What: Colorado State Rams (8-5, 0-0) @ New Mexico Lobos (12-0, 0-0)
When: Wednesday, December 28th – 7:00 MT
Where: The Pit; Albuquerque, NM
How To Watch: CBS Sports Network

Stream: FuboTV — get a free trial
Odds: New Mexico -7 Over/Under 150

Here we go. After seven weeks of non-conference action, one of the most highly anticipated Mountain West Conference basketball seasons in the league’s history tips off Wednesday night with a full slate of five games. Several intriguing matchups are on the docket, including the still undefeated Lobos of New Mexico hosting Colorado State in The Pit.

The MWC is coming off a 2021-22 season which saw it gain four bids to the NCAA tournament – its most since a record five bids in 2013. The fact that it went 0-4 in those games, to continue its run of poor March results, is a discussion for another day. The first two months of the 2022-23 campaign has seen multiple league members exceed expectations (media expectations of course), none of those more so than New Mexico. With much of its core returning and a couple of strong frontcourt additions, maybe the Lobos were undersold preseason; but that’s how it rolls when you finished 13-19 a season ago. All UNM has done as a response is go 12-0 to stand as one of only three Division I teams without a loss.

The Lobos’ opponent in the conference opener are the Rams of Colorado State. CSU was one of those four to grab a tourney berth last year, and was picked right around third in the preseason poll. They lost David Roddy to the NBA, but returned all-league point guard Isaiah Stevens. 5th year boss Niko Medved had to reshuffle the deck however, when Stevens was injured in a preseason practice and missed the first few weeks. The Rams held it together without their leader, suffered a bad upset loss to one in-state rival (Northern Colorado), and a blowout loss to another (Colorado). It added up to an 8-5 non-con record; not bad, but certainly not what CSU was looking for, and will leave them needing a massive surge in MWC play if they hope for a return invite to the Big Dance.

That surge will be made all the more difficult because of how strong the conference looks right now. It’s hard to win road games in most top leagues, and this one is no different. Between tricky travel due to obscure locations, dealing with altitude in certain cities, and tough home environments, the Mountain West is notorious for being difficult on road teams. And speaking of tough home environments, when New Mexico is rolling, it is one of the top home crowds in all of college basketball, let alone the MWC.

To say New Mexico is rolling right now would be an understatement. The Pit was rocking 10 days ago for the Pitino v Pitino matchup and even though students are out for the holidays, expect a near sellout and a raucous crowd for this one. The Lobos have been incredibly efficient on both ends of the floor, and really do not have a single metric where they rank below average. While they are not the greatest 3-point shooting team, they also don’t attempt a lot, which saves possessions, and speaks to the discipline of the roster. What they do exceptionally well is take good shots, protect the basketball, get to the free-throw line, and bang the offensive glass. That is a pretty solid recipe for success.

It helps to have three outstanding scoring options the way New Mexico does. Morris Udeze inside, and the guard combo of Jaelen House and Jamal Mashburn Jr. each average over 16 ppg. House has been an absolute stud, hitting 46% of his 3’s, dishing out more than five assists, and snatching nearly 3 steals per game. As for Mashburn, he just possesses the clutch gene, not surprising given his pedigree. He patiently waits for the game to come to him, and then buries daggers, often on mid-range jumpers. With KJ Jenkins heating up recently, it gives the Lobos an extra scorer that defenses need to focus on.

How does Colorado State match up here? Having Stevens back at 100% (or very close to it) is a good start. Unfortunately for Medved, he is far from the only key rotation member to have missed time. In fact, 2nd-leading scorer John Tonje (14.2 ppg) is the only Ram to have started all 13 games. Grad transfer Josiah Strong missed a handful of games before returning right before the break, while freshman Tavi Jackson and his 4 assists per game off the bench has missed the last two games, as has starter Jalen Lake. The goal for CSU was to have them back for conference play, but even if they return Wednesday night, it’s doubtful they will be able to play a full complement of minutes. These are key depth pieces for the Rams, needed in this game, but also for the grind of January and February in conference.

Stevens and Tonje form a nice one-two punch, and transfer Patrick Cartier led the way with 22 in their last outing versus USC. Much like UNM, Colorado State takes excellent care of the basketball, something Medved puts a premium on. They possess a great assist-to-turnover ratio, space the floor well and pass up good shots to get better ones. Their offensive efficiency marks line up evenly with the Lobos. Defensively though, while their statistics are not awful, they lag behind New Mexico in most categories. Their overall lack of size, and therefore rim protection has been a problem. 6’10” center James Moors is the only player taller than 6”8” getting minutes, and he only plays 18 minutes per night. That means over half the game they are playing severely undersized. This also comes into play on the boards, although they do team rebound at a fair enough rate defensively, they rank dead last in the nation at offensive rebounding.

With both offenses operating at a high clip, the better defense will obviously have an edge. Colorado State’s last opponent (USC) was very good defensively, and really put the clamps on the Rams. UNM doesn’t quite possess the length and athleticism of the Trojans, but they are very well in sync on that end of the floor. Josiah Allick and Sebastian Forsling provide depth up front, and the Lobos have been outstanding at knowing the strengths of the opposing players – in other words, sticking to the scouting report of Richard Pitino and his staff. With turnovers for both squads at a premium, the extra shots generated on the offensive glass for New Mexico, and the lack thereof for the Rams will give a boost to the home team.

One variable to keep an eye on here is the dreaded ‘first game after being ranked’. The Lobos just gained their first national ranking since late in the 2013-14 season, almost nine years ago. Many times, you will see a team enter the rankings, only to drop their next game, fresh with a new target on their back, and fall right back out. Truth be told, the rankings mean nothing right now, as there is an entire conference season to be played. It’s simply a mental challenge to not view yourself differently now that a number/ranking appears next to your team name on the scoreboard. New Mexico has been up for every other challenge so far this season, mental or physical; let’s see if they pass this one. What we see in this game may foreshadow much of what we see throughout the MWC schedule – back-and-forth, hard fought games featuring lead changes, eventually won by the home team. It says here, the Lobos protect their home court, their fresh ranking, and their undefeated season with a tight win.

Prediction: New Mexico 74 Colorado State 69


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