Since Tuesday night's Cincinnati-New Mexico game featured two of the most highly touted backcourts in the nation, it may come as a surprise who emerged as the best player on the floor by the end of the night
Believe it or not, it was a big man.
Seven-foot center Alex Kirk scored 15 points, grabbed seven rebounds and defended well in the low post to help New Mexico eke out an impressive 55-54 road win at previously unbeaten Cincinnati. It was a performance that suggested the redshirt sophomore may yet become the impact big man New Mexico needs despite missing all of last season with a back injury.
A long-range shooter as comfortable on the perimeter as in the low post on offense, Kirk has contributed for New Mexico in a number of ways this season. He scores 11.2 points per game, he grabs a team-high 7.4 rebounds and while his vertical leap may not clear a single sheet of paper, his 1.4 blocks per game are proof he has done a serviceable job protecting the rim defensively.
If Kirk can build on his solid early play during the Mountain West season, it will solidify New Mexico (13-1) as a threat to win one of the nation's most loaded leagues. The presence of guards Kendall Williams, Tony Snell and Hugh Greenwood ensured the Lobos would again be NCAA tournament contenders entering the season, but most questioned whether New Mexico had enough interior play to hang with the likes of UNLV and San Diego State.
While neither Kirk nor Australian-born Cameron Bairstow will make anyone forget about former New Mexico star Drew Gordon anytime soon, collectively they've done a solid job replacing his production so far this season. Their combined 22 points and 13 rebounds on Thursday night was the biggest reason the Lobos survived an off shooting night from the erratic Snell and a rare scoreless night from Greenwood.
For New Mexico to succeed in a league whose top seven teams boast a combined 74-10 record so far this season, the Lobos will have to prove they can beat good teams both at home and away from the Pit.
Saturday's tepid home loss to road-weary South Dakota State in which Kirk struggled was a step backward. Thursday night's gritty win at Cincinnati more than made up for it.