Winston Shepard (AP)
As San Diego State followed up marquee non-league victories over Creighton and Kansas by piling up win after win in January and early February, it was easy to forget the Aztecs weren't the preseason favorite to win the Mountain West.
That was New Mexico, which returned four out of five starters from a team that won 29 games and swept the regular season and tournament titles last year.
The Lobos made a statement Saturday night that they're not ready to cede those titles to San Diego State just yet when they forged a first-place tie in the Mountain West by routing the Aztecs 58-44 in Albuquerque. Cameron Bairstow scored 10 of his game-high 26 points during a 21-2 New Mexico blitz early in the second half that turned a five-point game into one-sided rout.
New Mexico's emphatic victory over the nation's sixth-ranked team should wrap up an NCAA tournament bid for the Lobos (21-5, 12-2) and give them an opportunity to return to the AP Top 25 poll on Monday. They began the season in the Top 25 but slipped off the national radar after non-conference losses to UMass and New Mexico State and a home loss early in league play to UNLV.
The strength of New Mexico is a potent offense headlined by Bairstow and Alex Kirk in the frontcourt and reigning league player of the year Kendall Williams in the backcourt, but the secret to the Lobos' recent surge has been their defense.
In a key victory at UNLV on Wednesday, New Mexico held the Rebels to 31.7 percent from the field and 3 of 21 from behind the arc. San Diego State's 32.3 percent shooting wasn't much better on Saturday night and the Aztecs did much of their damage via 16 offensive rebounds.
The key to New Mexico's defense on Saturday was Hugh Greenwood sticking with Xavier Thames and not allowing the Mountain West player of the year candidate to beat the Lobos either via his jump shot or off pick-and-rolls. Thames went 3 of 15 from the field and scored just seven points, not nearly enough for an Aztecs team that relies on him to create offense when it's not scoring in transition or on the offensive glass.
With Bairstow dominating in the paint at one end and Thames struggling to find space on the other, it wasn't hard for New Mexico to exert its will. Now the question will be whether the Aztecs will have an answer March 8 in San Diego in a regular season finale that may also double as the Mountain West title game.
Last season, San Diego State held New Mexico to 34 points at Viejas Arena only to lose the rematch in Albuquerque and watch the Lobos sweep the regular season and tournament titles.
Can New Mexico repeat? Will San Diego State avenge Saturday's blowout loss? In two weeks, those questions will be answered.
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