SDSU game could be big moment for Lobos’ Kuiper
Dane Kuiper was little more than a spectator the last time The University of New Mexico men’s basketball team headed out on the road for the dreaded San Diego State-Utah State road swing last year.
Riding high with a 7-2 record through the first nine games of the 2015-16 Mountain West Conference schedule, the Lobos lost in overtime at San Diego State and then fell again three days later in Logan, Utah, against the Aggies. It was part of six losses in eight games as UNM fell completely out of the conference race.
Kuiper played a combined 10 minutes in those games and was essentially a non-factor. Now a sophomore, he’s being counted on as a potential offensive scoring threat by Lobos head coach Craig Neal as the New Mexico attempts to make another early statement in the MWC race.
The Lobos (8-5, 1-0) will be in San Diego on Sunday afternoon to face the preseason conference favorite, then head to Utah State early next week.
“Really loud and a great place to play,” Kuiper said of SDSU’s Viejas Arena, a place known for its raucous student cheering section known as “The Show.”
Just like The Pit, the SDSU student section is situated up against the visitor’s bench. Kuiper said it’s impossible not to pay attention.
“It’s a lot like here,” he said. “It’s really just like a home away from home.”
Neal is turning to Kuiper more and more in recent games in an attempt to find a consistent third scorer behind senior forward Tim Williams and junior guard Elijah Brown. He has done well of late, reaching double figure scoring in three of the last four games.
Neal hasn’t decided on whether he’ll start Kuiper or junior Sam Logwood against SDSU. He did say that Brown will return to the starting role after coming off the bench each of the last three games. He bailed the Lobos out in the MWC opener earlier this week by converting all 14 of his free throw attempts and finishing with 19 points.
It’s part of a lengthy science experiment Neal has been conducting in an attempt to find the perfect player rotation. He has used as many as 13 players in several games and, until the Lobos beat Fresno State in the MWC opener, had used a regular rotation of 12.
Against the Bulldogs he used only nine players and said fans can expect more of the same against San Diego State and Utah State. The only exception might be seeing freshman Damien Jefferson coming off the bench to give Brown a breather.
“Other than that I think you’ll see the same guys,” Neal said. “I think we’ll go eight or nine and just go with that.”
Neal said his players remember last year’s trip, one that essentially opened the flood gates for a rocky ending to the season.
“I’m not bringing it up; I think it affected them enough,” he said. “I think a lot of those things they experienced last year helps us. I think they’re going to be able to feed off of that. That’s one reason why some of those experiences aren’t fun but hopefully will help them grow as a unit.”
Just being exposed to those types of noisy environments is something Kuiper said he won’t forget. When you spend so much time idling on the bench, it’s easy to take in the sights and sounds of a visiting arena and sample the crowd chatter raining down from above.
“Yeah, but [SDSU’s fans] they’re nice,” he said. “They didn’t really yell too much. At Utah State their fans were a little meaner. That game was a little weird for us.”
Scouting SDSU: The Aztecs have won four in a row, including the last three at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii over the Christmas break. They’ve held opponents to an average of 50.8 points during the current winning streak.
They have won three straight MWC championships and are looking to be the first four-peat regular season champion in conference history. They’ve won 10 league titles in head coach Steve Fisher’s tenure; six in the regular season and the other four coming in the MWC tournament.
The Lobos have won eight MWC titles in their history. The rest of the current conference members have combined to win just 10 championships.
Sam’s struggles: Lobos junior Sam Logwood started the season with a bang, scoring a career-high 20 points in the opener against Idaho State and reaching double figures in three of the team’s first five games.
He has become the invisible man of late, however, having gone two straight games without making a basket and scoring just six points in the last four outings.
He is 1 for his last 12 from the field, having played 60 minutes in that time. He has eight turnovers the last four games and, at times, appears to be a complete non-factor in the offense.
“Sam had some opportunities that just didn’t go down,” Neal said, saying finding the No. 3 scorer is no longer something he can count on Logwood to do.
“It’s got to be by committee,” Neal said. “Maybe Connor [MacDougall] can come in and do it. Maybe X [Xavier Adams] can do that, but it’s got to be by committee.”