The New Mexico Lobos put their newly acquired top-25 ranking on the line on Wednesday night, as they welcome the Mercer Bears to Albuquerque for a non-conference matchup.
Steve Alford has his Lobos playing at mid-season form already, as they have run through their schedule with six victories in as many games. New Mexico's record to date is highlighted by a Paradise Jam tournament title, as the team knocked off nationally-ranked UConn in the championship game (66-60). The team has since returned home to post easy victories over Idaho (73-58) and most recently, Portland (69-54).
It has been a tale of two seasons for Bob Hoffman's Bears in the early going, winning all three home games, while coming up empty in all three affairs in the same Paradise Jam that New Mexico won. Mercer was able to end the three- game skein at home this past weekend, with a 73-46 rout of Furman.
New Mexico has won both prior meetings between these two teams, although this is the first meeting since 2000.
The Bears didn't shoot the ball all that well (.439) and were outrebounded by Furman, 36-25, but they won nonetheless, by forcing the Paladins into 25 turnovers and getting a balanced scoring effort, with four double-digit scorers. Monty Brown led the way off the bench with 14 points in just 10 minutes of work. Jakob Gollon followed with 11 points, while Daniel Coursey and Travis Smith added 10 points apiece.
Mercer has struggled putting up offensive numbers this season, averaging a mediocre 60.7 ppg. Still, with a +11.5 scoring margin, the team has obviously thrived on the defensive end. The Bears rank fourth nationally in scoring defense, allowing a mere 49.2 ppg. Opponents are shooting just .369 from the floor against Mercer, including .273 from 3-point range. Smith is currently the only Bear with a double-digit scoring average at a modest 11.0 ppg. Langston Hall is next in line at 8.0 ppg.
The Lobos asserted themselves down low and wore out the Pilots last time out in a 15-point win at home. New Mexico shot just .333 from the floor overall, but went 29-of-38 from the free-throw line and pulled down 44 rebounds in the victory. Alex Kirk led the charge with a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds. Cameron Bairstow just missed his own with nine points and 11 caroms, while Jamal Fenton and Hugh Greenwood added 12 and 10 points, respectively.
The Lobos aren't getting it done with flashy offensive numbers, averaging 71.7 ppg on just .413 shooting. However, the team has done a solid job defensively, allowing just 63.5 ppg, while holding a +6.0 rebounding margin and averaging 6.8 steals per game. The team boasts of a trio of double-digit scorers, led by Kendall Williams and his 14.7 ppg. Tony Snell is next in line at 13.8 ppg and both are capable distributors, combining for 50 of the team's 86 assists to date. Kirk (11.0 ppg, 8.2 rpg) balances things out with his strong play in the frontcourt.