Game Guide: These Lobos are no hobos

The New Mexico men’s basketball team wasn’t expected to do much this year, but preseason expectations are often flawed.

The Lobos (14-3, 1-1 Mountain West Conference) have taken advantage of a cushy non-conference schedule and now trail only the Utes for the best winning percentage among MWC schools. The Lobos have put themselves in position to make a run at the conference title and to land a potential spot in the NCAA Tournament. A win against the Utes this Saturday would go a long way to helping New Mexico achieve those goals.

Despite coming into the season with a group of relative unknowns, the Lobos have emerged onto the national landscape in recent weeks. New Mexico is now listed as a team receiving votes for the top 25 in the ESPN/USA Today poll, and they lead the nation in field goal shooting percentage with an astounding average of 52.5 percent.

There is no doubt about it: the Lobos can shoot the ball. As a team, New Mexico already has five games under its belt this year where the team finished with a field goal shooting percentage above 60 percent. This includes a Jan. 15 loss to Air Force (11-6, 1-0) when the Lobos shot 69 percent from the field-only three Lobos’ missed field goals in that game.

The Lobos are tops in the MWC in scoring with 88.1 points per contest, and they also led the conference in scoring margin-winning by an average of 16.4 points per game. This stat might be skewed because of the Lobos’ light schedule, but it still proves they can score.

New Mexico suffered a setback on Jan. 8 during the Lobos’ conference opener when the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, senior forward Danny Granger, was sidelined with a knee injury. Granger underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Jan. 10 and is listed as questionable for this Saturday’s game against the Utes.

Granger is tied with Andrew Bogut for the conference lead in scoring with 19.1 points per game and he is second to Bogut in rebounding with 8.9 per game. The loss of Granger could prove to be a problem for New Mexico as they are now 0-1 without him in the lineup.

Although the loss to Air Force might be attributable to Granger’s absence, the Lobos still looked dangerous without him. Alfred Neale, the Lobos’ senior forward who usually comes off the bench, proved to be a worthy backup for Granger. In his first start of the season, Neale scored 15 points and hauled in six rebounds. David Chiotti, the Lobos’ junior forward, also stepped up in Granger’s absence by scoring 17 points against Air Force.

The major complaint about New Mexico has to do with the quality of its schedule. The Lobos looked impressive in a late-December loss to their only ranked opponent of the year-No. 3 Wake Forest-but they have yet to defeat anyone good. New Mexico’s best wins have come against Tennessee (9-7), Santa Clara (9-9) and Wyoming (9-7).

New Mexico has whooped up on the likes of Arkansas-Pine Bluff (3-11), Troy (6-11), Duquesne (4-13) and NC A&T (3-13)-and they smacked New Mexico State (4-12) twice. Exactly what those victories mean is still uncertain, but the Lobos will find out when they take on the Utes this Saturday.

[email protected]

Utah v. New MexicoSaturday, Jan. 221 p.m. at the Huntsman Center Salt Lake City, UtahTV: KJZZ 14Radio: Hot Ticket 700 AM

Utah v. Air ForceMonday, Jan. 247 p.m. at the Huntsman CenterSalt Lake City, UtahTV: None Radio: Hot TIcket 700 AM

Utah Schedule11/19 Stony Brook W 72-6311/25 Washington (Great Alaska Shootout) L 78-7111/26 High Point (G.S.A.) W 78-6911/27 Furman (G.S.A.) W 62-5011/30 Southern Utah W 65-4512/4 @Utah State L 71-4512/8 Montana-Western W 98-6312/11 @ Arizona L 67-6212/17 Northern Colorado W 81-6612/20 Coppin State W 66-3712/22 @ Cal Poly W 92-7612/28 Weber State W 51-4012/30 Colorado W 80-481/3 LSU W 69-551/5 Whitworth W 81-601/10 UNLV W 70-521/15 @ Wyoming W 74-491/17 @ Colorado State W 75-521/22 New Mexico1/24 Air Force1/31 @ BYU2/5 @ San Diego State2/7 @ UNLV2/12 Colorado State2/14 Wyoming2/19 @ Air Force2/21 @ New Mexico2/26 BYU3/5 San Diego State