Before the Harvard men’s basketball team’s Thursday night matchup with the University of New Mexico in the second round of the NCAA tournament, we caught up with J.R. Oppenheim of the New Mexico Daily Lobo to learn more about the Crimson’s opponent.
THC: What should Harvard expect from UNM? What are the team's strengths and weaknesses?
Without a doubt, New Mexico is a strong defensive unit, particularly in the half-court. Coach Steve Alford does not like to run a full-court press defense, so don’t expect to see that kind of tempo. His offensive philosophy works the ball from the inside out. Sophomore center Alex Kirk, a 7-foot Los Alamos, N.M. product, returned to the roster this year after back surgery for a herniated disc sidelined him a year ago, and he’s been one of the most consistent threats on the Lobo team. Australian sophomore forward Cameron Bairstow has come on lately as players key in on Kirk in the low post, and he earned all-conference honors last week. UNM will establish that frontcourt presence early in contests then start kicking the ball outside to its guards—juniors Kendall Williams and Tony Snell, and sophomore Hugh Greenwood. All three guards can shoot from the perimeter, especially Snell. Kirk is also capable of draining shots from beyond the arc. UNM does not have a senior on this current starting lineup, but senior forward Chad Adams provides strong defense off the bench and quick senior guard Jamal Fenton adds a different type energy whenever he’s on the floor. Freshman Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas has performed well off the bench over the last few weeks.
THC: What did South Dakota State, Saint Louis, UNLV, SDSU, and Air Force do to beat UNM?
In regards to Air Force, it's just one of those games that came down to the wire, a last-second Air Force triple. It was bit of an anomaly compared to the other losses since it was such a high-scoring affair. Since New Mexico has not been a particularly strong shooting team, those other teams took advantage of that defensively. San Diego State limited UNM to 25 percent shooting, the school’s lowest mark in the shot-clock era. That was the only game New Mexico wasn’t in. Nearly every Lobo game this season, win or loss, has been close. New Mexico is phenomenal in the last five to 10 minutes, especially on defense. In the losses to South Dakota State, UNLV and Saint Louis, the defense did not come through quite as well as it did in UNM’s closer wins.
THC: Could you talk about Tony Snell's performance to close out the season? What makes him effective?
Tony Snell has always been capable of being “the guy” for UNM. He’s a consistent double-digit scorer and his defense has improved over the season, but I’ve only seen a handful of games where he’s just gone off offensively. Since March began, he’s simply taken his game to another level. He easily won the MWC tournament MVP award after he had dominated games against San Diego State and UNLV. Against the Aztecs, Snell had a stretch of three 3-pointers on consecutive trips to lead a second-half charge. In the second half of Saturday’s championship, he had a personal 11-2 run against UNLV to break open a close game. The confidence he’s gained by his improved defense has translated to an overall higher confidence level as a player. The “Silent Assassin,” as he’s called, is not the most talkative guy, but when he’s on his game, he’s a force to be reckoned with.
THC: What has been the reaction from UNM players, coaches, and fans to being matched up against Harvard?
UNM’s official company line, like many teams have, is ‘Take it one game at a time,’ so they’re not looking past Harvard. However, I have not had an opportunity to talk with Coach Alford or the players about their scouting report. By the way it sounds, the fans feel pretty confident about the matchup.
THC: What did the Lobos learn from their two tournament games last year?
I can’t attest to what the team has learned from last year’s tournament since this is my first season on the beat, but I can tell you this team is different from past Lobo squads based on the fact that a different player can step up at any time. Last year, Drew Gordon was the clearly top player on UNM’s roster. This year, Snell can step up big when needed. Williams scored 46 against Colorado State, but UNM is nearly unbeatable when he has at least five assists. Greenwood’s 3-point shooting was key in UNM’s overtime win at Indiana State. Some nights Kirk is better down low. Some nights it’s Bairstow. Sometimes it’s both. It’s an extremely unselfish group. When you play New Mexico, you really have to pick your poison because if you key in too much on one guy, there are four others who can beat you.
THC: Does this team have a chip on its shoulder about its seeding? Does it believe it was disrespected by the selection committee?
The team does not appear to be disappointed in a No. 3 seed. I wrote a column saying I believed UNM would get a No. 2 seed, but that came prior to the Lobos’ season-finale loss to Air Force. Obviously fans want a higher seed, but if you look at who the No. 1 seeds are (Louisville, Gonzaga, Kansas and Indiana) and who the No. 2 seeds are (Ohio State, Miami, Georgetown and Duke), it’s not that surprising that UNM received a third seed despite their high RPI and strength of schedule. I feel those one or two seeds are so hard to come by, it’s difficult to be too disappointed in a No. 3 seed. If you look at the bracket, Gonzaga and New Mexico are the only two teams outside the traditional “power” conferences to be seeded third or higher. Of course the team members have been saying they want to go as far into the tournament as they possibly can, but the bigger concern around the community is at least breaking through into the Sweet 16. UNM has made 13 appearances in the Big Dance, and never progressed past the round of 32, not even when they were a No. 3 seed in 2010. That’s the hurdle New Mexico needs to clear if it wants to gain more exposure on the national level.