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Lobos have a chance to deliver a knockout

Win over CSU gives 2-game lead

FORT COLLINS, Colo. – The formula for Mountain West title contenders San Diego State, UNLV, New Mexico and Colorado State was a simple one:

Win your home games, split with the other three top-tier teams and don’t slip up somewhere else along the way.

That would lead to a 13-3 conference record, essentially a lock for at least a share of the regular-season title.

So far, only two teams – No. 16 New Mexico (22-4, 9-2 MWC) and Colorado State (21-5, 8-3) – have lived up to their end of the bargain by taking care of business against the rest of the league, leaving today’s 2 p.m. grudge match in Fort Collins, Colo., looking like the de facto regular-season championship game.

A CSU win puts it in a first-place tie with UNM with four games to go. A Lobos win would put them ahead of the entire league by at least two games with four to go.

“It’s a huge challenge, but it’s one our guys are looking forward to,” UNM head coach Steve Alford said.

It’s a challenge that’s brand new for a Colorado State team that has never finished better than fourth in the Mountain West. The Lobos, meanwhile, have won multiple league titles, including a share of last season’s with SDSU.

But another aspect of today’s game that isn’t new to the Lobos is an opportunity to bury the opposition’s league title hopes on its home court.

When UNM had such opportunities at SDSU on Jan. 26 and at UNLV on Feb. 9, they failed miserably – never showing up in a 55-34 loss to the Aztecs and digging too deep an early hole in a 64-55 loss to the Rebels.

“We didn’t come out with the fire we needed in those games,” center Alex Kirk said.

While they have the luxury of leaving Fort Collins today still in first place, win or lose, the players aren’t trying to diminish the importance of the task at hand.

“A two-game lead in this conference is obviously a big deal,” UNM guard Kendall Williams said. “We’ve had a week to prepare for them and a week to rest. They’re going to get our best shot.”

Added Kirk: “I think that’s an opportunity we can’t really waste this time around.”

Realizing the game’s importance and achieving a victory, however, are different matters.

CSU is still arguably the nation’s top rebounding team and, until Wednesday’s loss at UNLV, hadn’t been out-rebounded in any game this season. In its 66-61 loss at UNM on Jan. 23, CSU out-rebounded UNM 42-28.

“I don’t know if we can out-rebound them,” Alford said. “I really don’t. It’s going to take a Herculean effort to do that. So we’ve just got to do what we do.”

It should be noted that Kirk, UNM’s 7-foot sophomore center, hadn’t practiced for three days prior to that Jan. 23 game as he was suffering from flu-like symptoms. He played only 21 sluggish minutes against CSU’s highly regarded front line of Colton Iverson (6-foot-10, 260), Pierce Hornung (6-5, 210) and Greg Smith (6-6. 220).

Though healthy now, Kirk and Cameron Bairstow should still have their hands full down low. But as intimidating as the CSU front line is, it’s the defensive matchup of UNM guards Hugh Greenwood and Williams on Rams senior guard Dorian Green that may decide the outcome.

“I’ve said it for two years: I think Green has been the key to that team because he controls things,” Alford said.

CSU head coach Larry Eustachy knows his team’s identity nationally may be the frontcourt, but agrees that the motor pushing the ship is Green.

“He’s as important a piece as any,” Eustachy said. “We’re limited with the number of guards that we have. We can kind of shuffle our front line around, but obviously Dorian is, if not the key, one of the keys for sure because he is our only true point guard.”

UNM managed to get Green in early foul trouble Jan. 23, limiting him to nine minutes and two points in the first half.

Moby Arena, where CSU has won 27 consecutive games, sold out its 8,745 tickets earlier this week and is expected to be as intense a road environment as the Lobos have faced.

“We’ve got to be able to handle the enthusiasm of the game,” Alford said.

INJURY REPORT: Greenwood (ankle) and Kirk (left hand) were full participants in Lobos practice this week and are expected to start today. Junior guard Demetrius Walker (left knee bruise suffered Feb. 13 at Fresno State) is questionable. While he warmed up with the team at Thursday’s practice, he was held out of running and contact drills.

LOBOS LINKS: Roster | Schedule/Results | Geoff Grammer’s blog

— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal