Bairstow and New Mexico have thrived despite an underappreciated game on both sides of the floor. (Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS -- New Mexico doesn't care about your fancy quantitative analysis and schedule-adjusted scoring margin. These Lobos don't dabble in style points. They don't care one whit that they're not pretty or elegant. On both ends of the floor, they can hurt you inside and out. They're an egalitarian, bottom-line team that bangs you around, grinds you down, and then taps you out.
The kings of the dominant 10-point win delivered another prototype in the Mountain West semifinals, taking an 18-point lead early in the second half on their way to a 60-50 victory over San Diego State that pushes them into the championship game. It was a performance that showed off almost everything that makes New Mexico effective. It also is the latest in a string of closer-on-the-scoreboard-than-in-reality results that have casual fans and analysts alike wary about what could happen in an NCAA tournament setting, where their physical style may be officiated more closely and one bad shooting night can end your season.
It's a dangerous life in one-and-done play to be a couple of possessions away from an opponent having a chance to land a knockout blow, but after 33 games, the Lobos are who they are, and they're OK with that.
"We haven't [blown people out] all year," head coach Steve Alford said. "We're 28-5, and our win margin is probably seven, but not everyone's played our schedule."
You hear a lot of buzz about this team versus the 2010 version, which won 30 games and got a 3-seed in the NCAAs. Those Lobos barely escaped in the round of 64 and then were crushed the next round by an 11. But this team is really nothing like the 2010 version. Those Lobos were heavily reliant on Darington Hobson and Roman Martinez for scoring, and didn't have the size or defensive ability of this squad. The consistent defensive effort makes it easier for the "whoever's hot" offense to make enough shots to win.
Tonight, it wasn't Kendall Williams or Hugh Greenwood or even really Alex Kirk who did in San Diego State. In the first half, it was Cameron Bairstow, the last option on offense. In the second half, it was streaky shooting Tony Snell who hit back-to-back-to-back triples to help blow the game open. You can't shut off every one of their options very readily.
"That's what really good teams do," San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher said. "You can't say 'Well, we gotta stop this guy and we're gonna win.' They have a lot of ways they can hurt you, and they play to the flow of the game."
And even if you can handle both the Lobos' frontcourt size and perimeter shooting, you also have to score enough points to beat them, which in itself is not normally an easy task.
"They're [also] good defensively. They make it hard for you to get good looks," Fisher said. "Their size and length, change angles and make it hard for you to get [baskets] at the rim. They chase you on the perimeter. They're good, good at both ends which is why they have the record they've got and the ranking."
The Lobos know what's ahead of them, regardless of tomorrow's result. They're going to be a 2- or 3-seed in the NCAAs and have the accompanying expectations that come with that. The Mountain West's perceived lack of success in the NCAAs the last few years as the league has gotten deeper and better adds to the feeling that these Lobos must deliver next week and beyond.
And then there's that nagging habit of leaving teams in games, at least on the scoreboard, but the "New Mexico Blowout" has become this team's calling card, and Alford seems OK with that. He and his staff have had to manage this type of game all season. What's one more tomorrow and then as many as six more after that? This is what the Lobos do. It's who they are.
"We never talk to our guys about winning margin," Alford said. "It's all about winning."