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Lobos Already Facing Crucial Stretch

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Room For Error Is Suddenly Slim

One game at a time?

Of course.

Can’t overlook anyone?

Of course not.

But after being humbled in back-to-back losses last week, the New Mexico men’s basketball team doesn’t just need a win. It needs a winning streak. And immediately.

“When you’re only playing 14 (league) games, you can’t get too far behind too quickly because you don’t have enough games to catch up,” said UNM coach Steve Alford, whose team plays host to Colorado State (13-5, 2-1) tonight in a Mountain West Conference game.

“You have two less games this year. It’s still early, we’re obviously just three games into it. But I think that’s why this week becomes pivotal. If we have slippage again this week, then we can forget about having any kind of talk about being in the conference hunt.”

The Lobos’ setbacks to San Diego State (75-70) and UNLV (80-63) last week — the former at home — leave UNM (15-4, 1-2) little margin for error against the rest of the league. The rematches against the 13th-ranked Aztecs (18-2, 4-0) and 12th-ranked Rebels (18-3, 2-1) are still three weeks away, but the Lobos probably can’t afford to stumble in any of the five games until then if they hope to make a title run.

After tonight’s game with Colorado State, the five-game stretch continues at home Saturday against TCU (11-7, 1-2) before UNM visits Air Force (11-6, 1-2) and Boise State (10-8, 0-3), then plays host to Wyoming (16-4, 2-2) on Feb. 11.

“We had a disappointing week last week, and we have to make the most of this week to get ourselves steadied again,” Alford says. “If you can get through this week and do what we are supposed to do, and get this thing to 3-2 and 17-4, you’re doing a lot of good things. You’re over 80 percent in overall record; you’re back over .500 in the league race; you’re (going) to be — at most — two games behind the league leader. That’s a lot different from being, possibly, three or four back. So there’s a lot of pressure, and the guys are going to have to handle that.”

Tonight’s pressure, however, won’t come from relentless ball-hawking defenses like UNLV threw at the Lobos on Saturday, forcing 21 turnovers. But Colorado State is no slouch defensively, either.

The Rams are undersized, but extremely scrappy and well-disciplined on both ends of the floor.

Junior guard Wes Eikmeier (15.9 points per game) leads the team in scoring. Junior Dorian Green (13.7 ppg, 4.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists) is one of the league’s top all-around guards.

The Rams were on an eight-game winning streak until being routed at Wyoming 70-51 on Saturday. Despite the loss, CSU still has the second-best Ratings Percentage Index computer ranking (21) in the league, trailing only UNLV (6). UNM is fourth in the MWC with a 57 RPI.

The Rams’ solid computer ranking comes from playing a lot of very good nonconference opponents, even though some lack big-time names. But they have also played games at Duke and Stanford.

CSU has the 10th-ranked strength of schedule in the nation. It’s tops in the MWC.

“We like to play people; we like to go out and compete,” says fifth-year coach Tim Miles. “We want to put our program on the national map, and I think the only way to do that is to play marquee teams and marquee events.”

The Rams now play the league’s marquee teams in a killer three-game stretch. After tonight, they play host to San Diego State and then visit UNLV.

“It’s three games where we’re big underdogs; we know this,” Miles said. “At the same time, this is how you measure yourself. You have to put yourselves up against the best. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

 

— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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