- What went wrong for Nevada in a stunning road blowout to New Mexico? A lot of credit goes to the Lobos' zone defense.
There are just three undefeated teams remaining in college basketball after No. 6 Nevada was stunned in a road blowout at New Mexico on Saturday, 85–58.
After many wondered whether the Wolf Pack could run the table in the regular season, it took just two Mountain West games for them to suffer their first loss—and it wasn’t even close.
The Pit is a notoriously tough place to play, but going in, it didn’t seem likely that the Lobos would be the ones to knock off Nevada, and especially not in such convincing fashion. New Mexico entered Saturday ranked 190th on kenpom.com and 7–6 on the season, with losses to North Texas and Penn.
So how did the Lobos do it? And how did a defense ranked No. 222 in kenpom efficiency hold the Wolf Pack’s powerful offense to its lowest scoring output in almost two years?
For one thing, Nevada fell into old habits again, getting off to a sluggish start that turned into a 38–26 halftime deficit. Close first halves are nothing new for Eric Musselman’s team this season, which entered Saturday averaging only a 5.5-point lead at halftime, ranking 61st nationally. Conversely, it’s been one of the nation’s best second-half teams, ranking sixth with a +10.4-point scoring margin.
This time, though, the second-half burst never came. That’s because Nevada was stymied all night by New Mexico’s 3–2 zone, a brilliant decision by coach Paul Weir that powered the upset. The Lobos haven’t used the zone much this season—only 19.4% of the time, per Synergy Sports data—but they recently made the switch from man and have had notably more success on D.
Nevada wasn't able to crack the zone in Albuquerque from the perimeter, where it made just 4 of 20 three-point shots, and shot 33.9% from the floor for the night. Three-point shooting isn’t exactly a strength for the Pack, who shoot just about the national average at 34.4%, and their best shooter, Jazz Johnson, had only three attempts against New Mexico.
Twins Caleb and Cody Martin, meanwhile, were held to a total of 17 points on combined 4-of-20 shooting, with Caleb in particular struggling during a 2-for-14 outing. Jordan Caroline, who averages 18.4 ppg, was the only Nevada player to crack double figures, finishing with 17 points and eight rebounds on 7-for-17 shooting.
In the short-term, this probably doesn’t change too much for Nevada. It’s still going to be the heavy favorite to win the Mountain West, and it’s still one of the country’s top teams (it entered Saturday ranked No. 7 on kenpom and No. 8 in the NCAA NET rankings). The Wolf Pack’s offense, led by Caroline and the Martin twins, is an absolute handful that few teams can slow down, and their defense has so far been statistically much improved this season.
The Wolf Pack’s specific struggles against the Lobos’ zone, however, are fairly alarming, especially given the fact that it’s the exact thing they struggled with in an exhibition rout by Washington before the season. That one may not have counted, but it still points toward the fact that this Nevada team has to learn how to be efficient against the zone if it hopes to achieve its March goals this season (it also needs work on putting together a full 40 minutes).
For New Mexico, Saturday’s victory marked a breakthrough in 2018–19. The Lobos had yet to beat anyone even remotely of note, but now own one of the best wins in the country and will have a ton of early momentum as they look to build on a 2–0 start in conference play. Lobos senior Anthony Mathis had a career night, scoring 27 points and adding six rebounds, five assists and a steal, while junior Carlton Bragg—formerly of Kansas—grabbed 12 rebounds, and sophomore center Vladimir Pinchuk controlled the paint with four blocks. As New Mexico looks to get back to the success it had as a program earlier this decade, Saturday's big win at The Pit was certainly a huge step in the right direction.
Nevada’s loss now leaves Virginia, Michigan and Houston as the nation’s last unbeatens. The Cavaliers picked up an impressive win over No. 9 Florida State on Saturday, while the Wolverines host No. 21 Indiana and the Cougars host Memphis on Sunday.