Mountain West Basketball: Air Force vs. New Mexico–Preview, Prediction, Odds
Falcons, Lobos meet in The Pit
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What: Air Force Falcons (12-9, 3-5) @ New Mexico Lobos (18-3, 5-3)
When: Friday, January 27th – 8:00 MT
Where: The Pit; Albuquerque, NM
How To Watch: CBS Sports Network
Odds: New Mexico -13 Over/Under 142
Coaches will often say a loss is a loss, whether it’s by 1 point, or by 31 points. After all, they both count as one loss in the standings regardless of margin. But Friday night’s matchup in The Pit features two teams coming off losses just about as opposite as you can get. For the host Lobos, they played another classic, falling in double overtime in Reno to the Wolf Pack. Beyond the fact that it took an extra 10 minutes of time to decide the winner, was the way Nevada scored the go-ahead and ultimately game winning points (more on that in a minute). The visiting Falcons on the other hand, were absolutely taken to the woodshed by San Jose State, losing by 30 in a game that was not competitive after the first 5 minutes. That’s the same Spartans team that visited Albuquerque last week and left town with a 20 point loss. But, the transitive property isn’t used to help determine basketball games, and it’ll be 0-0 Friday night when the ball is tossed in the air.
Much in the same way that last Friday’s epic UNM overtime win over Boise State will be talked about for years, so now too will Monday’s affair in Reno. Unfortunately, it will be for the wrong reasons, as 50 outstanding minutes of basketball by two tremendous teams was overshadowed by a controversy late in the second overtime. After securing a rebound in a tie game, Morris Udeze had several Wolf Pack defenders surround him, sniffing around at the ball (maybe slapping at it as well). Eventually, to clear some space for himself, Udeze let an elbow fly that connected with Nevada’s Daniel Foster. No whistle was blown for anything, until Lobo boss Richard Pitino called a timeout with 15 seconds left to set up a game winning play. That’s when the officials do what they do far too often now, go to the monitor to review something. To be fair, this play probably should have been reviewed, but the whole process is flawed. New Mexico fans know the rest – Udeze was tagged with a Flagrant 1, awarding the Wolf Pack two free throws and the ball. When a desperation Jaelen House 3 was off the mark, Nevada fans stormed the court and celebrated, while UNM fans fumed.
This article might take an hour to read if we would cover all of the issues with what happened in that final 20 seconds. The bottom line is, the system that college basketball (and all sports to be honest) has in place now with the need for everything to be reviewed is hurting the game. We’ve already devoted plenty of space to that and not to the great on-court basketball that was played that night. The two teams went back and forth all night long, with neither leading by more than 5 at any point. Think about that for a second, over 50 minutes of basketball, the lead never got to six for either team; that’s incredible. Jamal Mashburn Jr. continued his torrid play, this time going for 33 points. Udeze tallied a double-double, and House added 10 assists to go with 17 points. The Lobos also got good contributions from Donovan Dent and Josiah Allick, and the offense executed at a high level the entire night.
The defense, particularly on the interior, did not shine as brightly. Nevada center WIll Baker went for a career high 28 points, on 12-17 shooting, much of it done in the paint. The help defense was not in place the way it had been the prior few games, and while the Wolf Pack struggled from behind the arc (5-24), they were far more efficient inside. Part of that may have been due to tired legs, especially down the stretch. Fresh from another overtime game a few nights before, the minutes added up in a hurry on Monday – Mashburn 43, House 47, Udeze 46, and Allick 48. That is a massive amount of time on the floor for that core four, and the fatigue also showed itself in some bad turnovers near the end of the first overtime.
As much as we’ve dissected the Lobos previous game, Air Force head coach Joe Scott would prefer the opposite for his team’s last encounter. Over the course of a 30+ game season, you’re going to have one or two games where it’s not your night, you don’t have your normal bounce, and it’s just not in the cards. That was Tuesday for the Falcons. Normally, their offense is based on timing, precision, patience, discipline, and it’s hard to break them from that. The other night they were just completely taken out of their game by San Jose State from the start. And then, a fairly slow-paced Spartans offense shot a season high 58% from the floor, carving up the switching defenses of the Falcons. They traditionally want to chase shooters off the 3-point line, which won’t impact UNM too much, as they don’t rely on the three-ball for too much of their O.
Offensively, Air Force will try to lull the Lobos to sleep with their constant motion and eventually take advantage of a breakdown. Get too aggressive and they will use it against you with a backdoor cut for a layup. They also have multiple players who shoot the 3 at a high rate. Jake Heidbreder (38%), Ethan Taylor (45%), and Camden Vander Zwaag (42%) all average two makes from downtown per game. The quickest way for an underdog to stay in a game and have a chance at an upset is to get hot from downtown. New Mexico will need to stay disciplined defensively and play the entire possession out each time down the floor. The Falcons most consistent player may actually be freshman Rytis Petraitis. Because of the requirements to get into the Academy, Air Force recruits a bit differently than most other schools, and so they’re never certain what they’re going to get from their newcomers. Petraitis has been a revelation, averaging 10 and 6, playing great defense, and earning Mountain West Freshman of the Week an incredible 5 times already. He’s one to keep an eye on.
How close this game is, or isn’t, will likely come down to how engaged the Lobos are. Their last two outings have been two of the best games in all of college basketball this season. It would only be human nature for them to have a bit of a letdown on Friday night, against an inferior opponent. Coach Pitino has had his troops answer the bell in other difficult spots so far this season, so we’ll see if that continues here. For Air Force, was Tuesday night’s trouncing just a one off, or is it a sign of the team hitting a mid-season wall? They have played much better basketball this season, but to be fair two of their three league wins (Fresno State and Wyoming) came against teams missing multiple starters, so there’s a little bit of luck involved there. They will struggle in the open floor with the athletes of UNM and will definitely have their hands full on the glass. The feeling here is that you’ll see a better effort by the Falcons, and a bit of a sluggish start by the home team, but ultimately there’s just too much talent for New Mexico, and they’ll add another one to the win column.
Prediction: New Mexico 79 Air Force 69