And the Lobos, with four returning starters from an NCAA Tournament squad, welcomed the challenge.
Tonight’s game in the Pit, whether said publicly or not by the teams, was one circled since the league revealed the schedule this offseason.
Fast-forward to mid-January and things have changed. No. 7 San Diego State is the league’s lone unbeaten team. It’s the Aztecs who are leading the expected national, or even regional buzz some thought tonight’s game might generate, to dwindle.
But don’t tell the Broncos or Lobos – two teams still hoping to win a league title and return to the Big Dance – that tonight isn’t still very much a game with plenty on the line.
“They’re a really good team that’s dangerous because they’ve got more guys back than anyone in the league,” UNM coach Craig Neal said.
While UNM (13-4, 4-1) beat Boise State (13-5, 3-2 Mountain West) both times last year, their first game was as close as any UNM played all season. Broncos star guard Derrick Marks scored 27 points in an overtime loss in Idaho.
He remains the straw the stirs the Broncos’ offensive drink and priority No. 1 on the Lobos scouting report.
“I think the biggest thing is to try and contain him, try to keep him out of the paint as much as you can and keep him off the foul line,” Neal said of Marks, who is averaging 15.7 point per game this season. “They’re dangerous and have a lot of guys that can hurt you, but it all starts with him then it goes to (Anthony) Drmic.”
Drmic is the 6-6 wing whose 18.6 points per game is fourth in the league this season. But it’s been fast guards like Marks who slash to the lane and either attack the rim or kick it out to 3-point shooters (Boise State has plenty of those) that have given the Lobos the most trouble this season.
Boise State’s 79.2 point per game leads the Mountain West this season.
“We’ll have to make them guard us and hopefully we’ll be able to guard them and contain the 3-point line a little bit,” Neal said.
Neal says the Broncos, usually a four-guard team, are a little different in their approach this season. They sometimes play with two bigs with the addition of 6-foot-7 freshman Nick Duncan helping 6-9 starting center Ryan Watkins. Still, the Lobos know 6-9 Cameron Bairstow (20.5 points per game) and 7-0 Alex Kirk (13.9) present the biggest mismatch for UNM.
“It’s not an easy matchup,” Neal said, “but they’ve got to guard us, too.”
USC ON SCHEDULE: The Journal has learned the Lobos will have Southern California on the schedule the next two seasons. The Trojans will play in the Pit in the fall of the 2014-15 season and the teams will meet in Los Angeles in 2015.
The two teams had a home-and-home series the past two seasons with UNM winning in Los Angeles in 2011 and in the Pit in 2012. The Lobos lead the all-time series 6-5.