New Mexico flips team’s identity to defensive mindset following injuries

Ivan Pierre Aguirre | USA TODAY Sports Images
Since changing its identity to a defensive mindset, New Mexico has limited opponents to 56.7 ppg.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If ironing out the wrinkles at the offensive end were as easy as it has been on defense, the sailing would be a whole lot smoother for New Mexico men’s basketball team.

Riding a three-game winning streak entering Wednesday’s date with winless Central Arkansas in The Pit, the Lobos (6-3) have gotten downright defensive since a slew of injuries sent the team’s offensive firepower into a deep freeze in late November.

They’ve held each of their past three opponents to 47 or fewer points, holding all three to less than 35 percent shooting. Ever so slowly they are creeping up the NCAA’s leaderboard for both points allowed (56.7; 22nd nationally) and field goal defense (37.4 percent; 34th).

If you buy what head coach Craig Neal is selling, owning a stifling D is all about attitude, trust and assertion. It certainly helps to have the physical tools, too. Despite losing 7-footer Alex Kirk and 6-9 Cameron Bairstow to the NBA after last season, the Lobos are as big as ever.

“We’re getting better defensively,” Neal said. “We’ve done a good job defensively. I tell you one thing that does show up that we have never had and we’ve never talked about is our length. I mean, our guys change shots.

“Our length is causing some problems.”

The Lobos’ lineup is actually nearly identical in size to last year’s starting five. The shortest player is rebound-hungry point guard Hugh Greenwood at 6-3. Alongside him — for the time being, pending injuries — is 6-4 guard Xavier Adams. The others are 6-5 guard Deshawn Delaney, 6-8 forward Devon Williams and 7-1 center Abij Aget.

Coming off the bench are 6-9 forward Jordan Goodman and 6-10 backup center J.J. N’Ganga.

Before the season, Neal said his team would be a run-and-gun club. He had plenty of reason to think that way. With Kirk and Bairstow gone and seven guards at his disposal this year, it was safe to assume that the gazelles in the backcourt would dictate tempo with a slew of fresh legs and itchy trigger fingers.

Injuries derailed that. And if it wasn’t the injuries, a heaping helpful of cold shooting is a good excuse. Same, too, for the Lobos’ complete lack of scoring punch when facing the zone.

Neal said he wants his guards to take the reigns against the zone by driving the ball and taking the heat off the post players by creating opportunities at the rim.

“When we’re turning the corner on ball screen in the zone we’re not getting in the paint,” Neal said. “We’re not driving it, making two guys play us. The biggest thing in the zone is you gotta make two guys play one and we’re not doing that. We’re kind of going around the perimeter, the 3-point line. When we catch it in the high post we’re not looking to make a play.”

When countering the man-to-man defense, UNM has the goods to work the ball inside and allow its guards to move the ball around for a good shot — something they have not done against the zone. Neal said the offense is at its best when reversing the ball in the half-court set. It frees up just enough space for the shooters and opens lanes for penetration.

Against the zone, it all falls on the guards to hit from the outside — something they don’t do particularly well.

Despite a 3-point defense that is holding opponents to just 24.7 percent shooting — ranking sixth-best in the country — the offense is hitting just 27.1 percent of its shots from distance.

We can get a lot better defensively and we’ll have to get a lot better defensively for conference.
— Craig Neal

That total was punctuated by an abysmal 4-for-20 effort in the most recent win over the weekend against Louisiana-Monroe.

“I think the only reason we shot 20 in that last game is they played zone,” Neal said. “When guys think they’re open they think they have a right to shoot, but there will be some discussion today in film.”

For now, defense is the name of the game. That means a throwback to the days of the early Steve Alford era when the former Lobos coach preferred to grind games out with a suffocating defense.

Neal is fine with that. He has the personnel to do just that.

“We can get a lot better defensively and we’ll have to get a lot better defensively for conference,” he said.