|Alex Kirk is on his way to becoming one of the better big men in the country after his Thursday performance. (Getty Images)|
CINCINNATI -- New Mexico coach Steve Alford spent about 15 minutes listening courtside, refusing to leave until his former coach, Bob Knight, was finished disclosing his thoughts and suggestions on the Lobos.
New Mexico hung around long enough to ultimately knock No. 8 Cincinnati from the ranks of the unbeaten with an ugly, but significant 55-54 victory on Thursday night. It came on the heels of a shocking home setback against Nate Wolters and South Dakota State.
"I didn't know how we'd respond," Alford said.
The same way the Lobos had fared in 13 previous games before the South Dakota State loss: With a win.
Alford's team, the same one that won 28 games a year ago and finished tied for the Mountain West crown, is 13-1 with wins over two Big East teams away from The Pit. The Lobos have won 13 of 14 games despite their top two shooters, Kendall Williams and Tony Snell, making a combined 35 percent of their shots from beyond the arc.
"Every game has been like this one," Alford said.
Kind of ugly.
The Lobos' perimeter was the constant coming into the season. Williams and Snell -- both juniors -- and pure point guard Hugh Greenwood, just a sophomore. Snell has all the natural ability to become a star, but he still battles inconsistency and might always be a solid No. 2 guy at UNM. Williams is one of the top guards out west -- and Greenwood, an Aussie, knows how to run the team.
But the key was whether the Lobos would have anyone to replace Drew Gordon's 13.7 points and 11.1 rebounds in the paint. In-state big man Alex Kirk was the likely candidate, but he was coming off back surgery in the summer of 2011 that forced him to miss all of last season. There was also 6-foot-9 junior Cameron Bairstow -- another native of Australia.
Kirk was the best player on the floor in Thursday night's victory against the big, strong and athletic Cincinnati Bearcats. Knight told Alford, his former star guard at Indiana, that Kirk needed to be more active, but evidently Knight didn't do his homework before this one. He must not have been aware that Kirk is still working his way into game shape. That he had a herniated disc in his back that sent a shooting pain down his left leg. At Alford's shooting camp in June 2011, the pain was so bad that he couldn't even stand.
"I'm pretty close," Kirk said after scoring 15 points, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking three shots -- including a potential game-winner from Sean Kilpatrick -- in 29 minutes. "I'm feeling better every day."
Kirk was all smiles when he found out what Knight said about him, even if it was a bit on the negative end. This is a kid who made multiple six-hour drives from his home in Los Alamos, N.M., to Lubbock, Texas, to watch and listen to the Hall of Fame coach at his camp.
"Just to see him over there and then talk about my game to Coach [Alford] is unbelievable," Kirk said "That's advice I'm going to take to heart."
From all accounts of those who watched the game on television, Knight didn't even know Kirk's name and just kept referring to him as number 53. To be honest, the strong and deceptively athletic 7-footer hadn't really done much to warrant it -- until Thursday night.
"We've got some really good players," Alford said. "And Alex is one of them."