2023 Mountain West Conference Tourney: No. 6 New Mexico vs. No. 11 Wyoming
New Mexico vs. Wyoming: Preview
Both squads hoping for some March Madness Magic on Wednesday.
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Cowboys & Lobos take the best of three approach in first round of Mountain West Conference Tournament.
WHO: No. 6 seed New Mexico (21-10, 8-10 6th in the MWC), No. 11 seed Wyoming Cowboys (9-21, 4-11 last place in the MWC)
WHEN: February 8th, 2023-5:00 PM MT/4:00 PM PT
WHERE: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, NV
Stream: Mountain West Network
Odds: Lobos favored by 9 points, per KenPom
Thanksgiving and Christmas came and went. While the shortest month of the year lived up to it’s reputation. Before we knew it March Madness had arrived. With all teams heading for Las Vegas for four straight days of basketball.
This season was an absolute battle field for all teams involved in conference play. Night in and night out, anyone was capable of being beaten. San Diego State beats Nevada, while New Mexico beats San Diego State, while ultimately Nevada sweeps New Mexico.
That pattern was repeated all across the Mountain West. Hopefully some of that firepower and upset potential makes it’s way to the Thomas & Mack Center this week.
Rounding out the tournament action on day one are two teams that made conference play very interesting this year. The New Mexico Lobos who came in red hot and eventually sizzled out for a mid-table season finish. And the Wyoming Cowboys who fell very short of the preseason hype and expectation fell far. All the way to the conference cellar this year.
In a down year for Wyoming, the Cowboys played some of their best basketball against the Lobos each time they met on the hardwood. They split the series this year in spectacular fashion.
A down to the wire thriller in Laramie that was nearly the Lobos’ first loss of the season. To be followed up by a 14-point road win on Valentine’s day inside a jumping Pit.
Both teams also posted upsets over several league leaders in conference play, each program battle now tested and ready to put on a show.
The Lobos hit the road to Las Vegas as the No. 6 seed in the tournament. A strong start to the 2022-2023 season, which included an undefeated conference slate, several weeks in the AP top-25 & sell out crowds.
It truly felt like a reemergence of Lobo basketball, in just the second year of head coach Richard Pitino’s time in Albuquerque.
Led by a three-headed monster in graduate transfer Morris Udeze, Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Jaelen House. New Mexico thrives when those three are locked and loaded on both sides of the ball. With an up tempo preference and majority of their points coming inside the paint and from the free throw line. Ask any team inside the top-5 (with the exception of Utah State), the Lobos can play.
The Lobos haven’t advanced past the first round of the tournament since the 2019-2020 season. A win over Wyoming sending them to the quarterfinals will be yet another example of Pitino’s progress with the New Mexico program.
Wyoming was meant to challenge for a conference championship this season. With the preseason Player of the Year Graham Ike and senior swiss army knife Hunter Maldonado returning to lead a deep roster with veterans and high major transfers alike. Big things were expected in Laramie.
But, maybe one of the worst cases of the injury bug in a program combined with the departure of Jeff Linder’s Pac-12 imports last month placed them in dead last in the conference.
Even given the skeleton roster going into March, coach Linder boasts one of the best players in the conference in Maldonado. And players like Jeremiah Oden, Xavier DuSell & Brendan Wenzel are capable of scoring in double-digits too, especially with an unselfish 6-7 point guard dishing out assists.
The Cowboys, like most are hoping for any resemblance of an encore performance to last year’s squad in March. A Ike led Wyoming team fell in the semifinals to eventual champion Boise State, but then went on to Dayton as an at-large bid in the tournament. The likelihood that happens again is slim, but this is March, anything is possible.
Last Time Out
The Cowboys were able to secure some homecourt revenge over the Lobos in Albuquerque in their last meeting of the regular season. Wyoming was led by their pair of Hunters in that one.
With Hunter Maldonado logging a game high 20 points, 10 rebounds & 5 assists, while shooting 46.2% from the floor & 88.9% from the charity stripe. Hunter Thompson helped secure the road upset by contributing 12 points & 5 rebounds that night but also knocking down four threes.
The Lobos were without star floor general Jaelen House in that rematch. After suffering a hamstring injury that kept him out of half of New Mexico’s four game losing streak during the beginning of February. Mashburn Jr. chipped in 15 points in that loss while Udeze posted a double-double of 12 points & 17 rebounds.
Players to Watch
Gr. F Morris Udeze
The now media voted Mountain West Newcomer of the Year has indeed held true to that accolade this season. Since transferring from Wichita State last season, the big man has anchored the Lobo frontcourt. As a double-double machine and down low bully at 6-8, 240.
With a league leading 12 double-doubles this season, Udeze is averaging 16.4 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 1.3 APG while shooting 62.1% from the floor.
Udeze has been consistent for the Lobos throughout the season. Only failing to score in double figures, all 31 games and nearly 1,000 minutes on the court. Especially as of late, averaging 22.6 PPG, 10.2 RPG & shooting 73.7% from the floor and an improved 73.7% from the free throw line.
Sr. G Jaelen House
House worked his way into the all-conference first team this week after a stellar season, leading one of the Mountain West’s most resurgent programs. The 6-0 floor general has made his mark on the Lobo program ever since arriving from Arizona State two seasons ago. Currently averaging 16.8 PPG, 4.7 APG, 3.9 RPG & a league leading 2.6 SPG, House’s impact on the floor doesn’t go unnoticed.
As the first one on the floor diving for loose balls, the first one down the floor on fast break opportunities, House plays with intensity. He can also score at all three levels but excels when the game is fast on both ends. His backcourt teammate Jamal Mashburn Jr. leads the team in scoring, but House receives this spotlight simply for how much he does for the Lobos. When he is hot, New Mexico is a winner.
Sr. G Hunter Maldonado
The new all-time Mountain West Conference assist leader (627) and very likely all-time Cowboy great is dangerous with the ball in his hands. The 6-7 guard who can play positions 1-4, is averaging 14.8 PPG & 4.8 RPG in 28 games (all starts) this season.
As a scorer, capable of driving to the basket, drawing fouls and making the contested jumper. He does it all, including dishing the ball out (4.1 APG) and maintaining a defensive at the top of the key (1.4 SPG).
To say this team isn’t run through Maldonado would be a crime. And a big game from the redshirt senior could be the x-factor needed to sink the Lobos good season for good.
Sr. F Hunter Thompson
Possibly dubbed the other Hunter, or maybe the home state Hunter has managed to stave off all newcomers to secure his minutes on the floor this season. With preseason POY candidate Graham Ike suffering a season ending right foot injury, Thompson has attempted to fill the void. It’s a huge one, filled with energy in the paint, rebounds galore and a knack for scoring around the basket in droves.
Thompson has done his part, with a modest 6.8 PPG & 5.4 RPG in 25 games (all starts) this season. The most important aspect of his game though is his floor spacing ability. Averaging 1.6 made 3FGs a game on 5.0 attempts (31.7%), the 6-10 forward from Pine Bluffs is dangerous if he finds his rhythm. He played a big role in Wyoming’s 70-56 win over New Mexico on the road last month.
New Mexico 75, Wyoming 70
This is a tough one to call, given the results of both regular season matches between these two. With short benches and less than optimal play as of late, I go to the stat sheets. To me New Mexico just has more fire power at the moment and if everything is cooking tomorrow afternoon and the Lobos get to dictate the tempo, it’s a no brainer. It will be close, but I see coach Pitino’s squad advancing in this one.
Larry Muniz covers college basketball as a writer for Mountain West Wire and WAC Hoops Digest. Also as a co-host of the college basketball podcast “Hoops Talk W/Jay & Larry”. He is also a USWBA Member.