Xavier Thames has carried this team to wins, and if the Aztecs win tonight, you may as well hand him the conference player of the year trophy on his way out of the arena. But if you want to know who can really tip the scales tonight, you’ve got to look all the way back to November. The best and maybe the only realistic comparison for New Mexico is probably Arizona. Having multiple bigs that can score the ball in the college game almost looks strange to us now. There’s no doubt that teams look for the perimeter stars first. But if you want to give your opponent headaches, then find guys that can be bullies in the paint.
There’s no hidden formula to “stop” Cameron Bairstow. Notice how massive the guy is and you’ll see why he’s been so dominant. He doesn’t do anything fancy; he backs his backside right into you and will just keep backing it on up until he gets the ball. The Aztecs should go back to the automatic double teams in the post on Bairstow as they did in Lawrence with Joel Embiid. Get the ball out of his hands and turn things over to one of this team’s best strengths: Closing out and scrambling to shooters with great length, quickness, and discipline. I would hope the double teams are only used on Bairstow. If New Mexico thinks Alex Kirk one on one with Skylar Spencer is an advantage worth exploiting, I’m happy to let them go on believing so.
So then, who can tip the scales tonight? It’s got to be all about J.J. O’Brien right from the tip tonight. O’Brien took 6 of the team’s first 10 shots against that 4-headed monster that is the Arizona front court. And that set the tone for the rest of the night. All four bigs for the Wildcats had at least 4 fouls, with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson fouling out in just 18 minutes. Winston Shepard is credited as the match up nightmare, but O’Brien, if he’s made a focal point of the game plan, is all that and then some. He is strong enough to guard bigs on the block, but will just blow by any of those guys that tries to guard him.
O’Brien scored 8 in the first half against the Wildcats and 11 in the second. He attempted 11 free throws that night and was just a constant pain in Sean Miller’s side. None of his four bigs, even the lauded Aaron Gordon, could stay in front of O’Brien. Yes, this was very early in the season, but he is just quicker than those guys. If he can get the same kind of start tonight, that’s how Bairstow and Kirk will get into foul trouble. But one thing has got to happen for this to be possible: Get Dwayne Polee into the game right away!
The Aztecs should want to force Bairstow to guard O’Brien, which this does. Adding Polee will provide some spacing, and make one of the team’s wrinkles on offense especially dangerous. Dwayne Polee, ever since last season, spends some time at the elbows setting screens for the point guard. He opens things up with his pick and pop potential, but this also allows O’Brien to wait on the weak side of a Thames pick and roll all by himself. If Polee gets it to him quickly after a ball reversal, he’ll catch Bairstow off balance and get the chance to make a quick drive to the basket. I love, love, love this set up for the offense. And if you get Shrigley in there for a few minutes to camp out in the corner on the ball side to give Shepard a break, things will open up a lot more for Thames off the bounce in that initial pick and roll as well.
All things are pointing to just what I had hoped for tonight. I’ve really wanted Winston Shepard to have a monster finish to this regular season, and all signs are pointing in that direction. The degree to which he was engaged defensively in that UNLV game was outstanding. Even if he got caught gambling in the back court, he got back immediately. He was the leading scorer against the Lobos the first time around, which doesn’t say much knowing the team did not play well, but I don’t have a problem with anything he did offensively in that game. I want to see more of the same from him – bullying Hugh Greenwood on the block, taking that 12-15 footer off the pick and roll with confidence, and daring Bairstow and Kirk to elevate and challenge him at the rim.
The energy in that building will really be a sight. Saying goodbye to Xavier Thames and Josh Davis will be tough, but remembering their time here, it’s easy to remember that those two have given these fans nothing but great times. We’ve got tremendous potential for a fun “anything you can do, I can do better” back and forth between Kendall Williams and Xavier Thames, but let’s hope a steady diet of shots is in the works for J.J. O’Brien. If he can send Bairstow to the bench, New Mexico’s lack of depth will really be exposed, and the Aztecs will be free to use any big (like the starting 5) or small lineup (Thames/Quinn/Shrigley/Polee/Davis… bombs away!) as they please.