New Mexico’s high tempo allowing offense to catch up with its defense

Ivan Pierre Aguirre | USA TODAY Sports Images
New Mexico allows just 58.8 points per game.

The Lobos offense showed up on Wednesday night — a bit of a welcome surprise for the announced crowd of 14,478 in the Pit.

That hasn’t always been the case this season.

In many instances this season this UNM team also continues to play defense, somewhat surprisingly considering the amount of new pieces to the puzzle, at a pace not seen in the Pit in decades.

“Our defense is going to put us in games,” UNM senior guard Hugh Greenwood said. “If we make shots, it’s a bonus.”

Obviously a combination of the two is the goal. But he’s right in the sense that UNM (9-4, 1-0 Mountain West Conference) has been a team hanging its hat first and foremost on defense this season. In beating Fresno State 76-64, the Lobos extended their streak of keeping opponents under 70 points to 13 consecutive games to open the season, something no other UNM team has done since the 1964-65 season. No other Mountain West team can make the same claim this season. San Diego State has been close. The Aztecs have allowed more than 70 points twice, but both were overtime games.

And the Lobos aren’t doing it with just that man-to-man defense Pit crowds have grown accustomed to in recent seasons. Head coach Craig Neal, with heavy influence from associate head coach Lamont Smith who is the team’s primary defensive coordinator, has been more flexible with his team this season on the defensive end of the court. On Wednesday, New Mexico used a man-to-man defense, a 2-3 zone, a 1-3-1 zone, pressed and threw both full- and half-court traps at the Bulldogs (5-9, 0-1).

Opposing coaches throughout the season have commented on how the length of this Lobos roster causes problems, especially in UNM’s ability to clog up passing and driving lanes. The average height of 78.3 inches (taller than 6-feet-6) on UNM’s roster ranks 12th out of 351 Division I teams.

That length at every position, short of when 6-foot point guard Tim Jacobs is in the game, has made the Lobos’ zone defense particularly effective this season.

“I think they’ve always been a really good gap defensive team,” Fresno State coach Rodney Terry said on Wednesday, after UNM held his team to 38.6 percent shooting, including just 23.1 percent (3-of-13) from 3-point range in the second half when they were trying to mount their comeback.

“It’s really hard for you to go in there and drive against those guys. They do a great job of not really getting spread out. They’ve always done a good job of that. I think the zone was good for them tonight. I think it stymied us a little bit. And we’ve always been a really good zone offensive team, too. We take a lot of pride in lighting up zones, to be honest with you.”

UNM has now held nine of its first 13 opponents under 40 percent shooting, and it’s been that ability to effectively mix things up within games that has brought a smile to Neal’s face.

“I was happy with the way our guys played defense [vs. Fresno State],” Neal said. “We changed up some things — did some things that we haven’t done in the past. I think we can do that with our length and our quickness. … I was really happy that they were able to take that from the practice floor and just recalled it on the spur of the moment and it worked.”