If Stanford wants to avoid being a casualty in New Mexico's campaign of #unfinishedbusiness, the Cardinal is going to have to cope with an Australian power forward who is so enthusiastic he heads to the weight room after most games.
The Cardinal's opening-round NCAA tournament matchup against the three-time Mountain West tournament champion Friday in St. Louis isn't an easy one. Brisbane native Cameron Bairstow has helped make the Lobos a physical powerhouse.
"They are good," stressed San Jose State coach Dave Wojcik, whose team lost twice to seventh-seeded New Mexico. "I thought they'd probably be a five seed."
Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins agrees. "They're big and physical, and they're experienced," he said.
And they're motivated after a stunning 68-62 loss to 14th-seeded Harvard in last year's NCAA tournament.
When Craig Neal was promoted to head coach last April after Steve Alford left for UCLA, Neal immediately proclaimed the Lobos (27-6) had "unfinished business" in the NCAA tournament.
The words picked up a hashtag and became a social media cry and unofficial slogan for Lobos fans. A year later, Stanford (21-12) is in the path of the wrath.
And the Lobos do try to physically overpower opponents, starting with Bairstow, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound senior who has assembled 21 games of at least 20 points.
"He loves to dish out the contact -- that's his game," Wojcik said. "He's one of those unusual kids who's got a tremendous work ethic. It's obviously paying off for him."
A year after averaging 9.7 points and 5.9 rebounds, Bairstow provides the Lobos 20.3 points and 7.4 rebounds. Teammate and fellow Aussie Hugh Greenwood calls him "a beast." Neal has called Bairstow the best power forward in the country. "I wouldn't disagree," Dawkins said. "I like his game. I like his toughness."
But Wojcik said Bairstow can be vulnerable on defense. He's not terribly quick and could be exploited by a mobile forward such as Stanford's Dwight Powell or Josh Huestis, who can force him to guard in space on the perimeter.
"You have to execute in the half-court and be patient against them," Wojcik said. "They will break down, defensively."
The Lobos' offensive arsenal only begins with Bairstow. Center Alex Kirk, a 7-foot, 245-pound junior who was offered a scholarship out of high school by Cal, scored 32 points against Massachusetts. He averages 13.6 points and 8.7 rebounds to go with 85 blocked shots.
Senior combo guard Kendall Williams, who once committed to UCLA as a 10th-grader, may be the team's best talent. Projected as a second-round NBA draft pick by NBAdraft.net, he was Player of the Year in the MWC last season and averages 16.4 points and 5.4 assists.
"When they need a basket or to stop a run," Wojcik said, "it always seems like Kendall's the one who makes that play for them."
Greenwood shares the point with Kendall and is among the nation's most efficient players, with a 3.7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. "He's sort of the glue of the team," Wojcik said.
It's the Lobos' physical nature that presents the biggest problems. Staying even on the boards is a key, Wojcik said, as is keeping New Mexico from parading to the foul line.
That will be challenging because the Lobos have made more free throws (614) than their opponents have attempted (608).
Follow Jeff Faraudo on Twitter at twitter.com/JeffFaraudo.
South Region, at St. Louis:
No. 10 seed Stanford (21-12) vs. No. 7 New Mexico (27-6), 10:40 a.m. TBS
ethan miller/getty images
Cameron Bairstow averages 20.3 points for the Lobos, who want to atone for a loss to Harvard in 2013.