Tim Korte - The Associated Press | Posted: Friday, February 26, 2010 4:48 pm
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico forward Roman Martinez, the only senior on his team, said he's looking forward to his final visit to Provo.
It's easy to see why.
When the No. 10 Lobos (26-3, 12-2) play Saturday at No. 13 BYU (26-3, 11-2), it marks the first-ever matchup of Top 15 squads in the Mountain West's 11 seasons. Each team has achieved its school's best-ever record through 29 games.
And it's sure to be a first-rate college basketball atmosphere. New Mexico takes a 12-game winning streak to the Marriott Center, where BYU holds a 21-game homecourt winning streak and a frenzied capacity crowd of 22,700 is expected.
"Their fans are going to be tough on us from the second we step off the bus," Martinez said. "But I think it's a great thing to experience."
This is a rematch of New Mexico's 76-72 win at The Pit on Jan. 27
"It's going to be a battle," said BYU's Jackson Emery, whose 73 steals this season are a school record.
"They're the hottest team in the league right now. They've won 12 straight. They beat us down there. It's going to be a dogfight."
The survivor earns no worse than a share of the Mountain West's season title and will be in great position for the final stretch. If the Lobos win, they'll secure the No. 1 seed for the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas because of their earlier defeat of BYU.
But that's a big if.
New Mexico coach Steve Alford sees the challenge his team faces.
Alford said the Lobos will have a long afternoon if they don't limit BYU's rocket-fast transition offense. Shot selection is key, since a basket forces the Cougars to start their possession by inbounding — anything to give the defense a few extra seconds to set up.
"I think BYU is the best transition team in the country," said Alford, who coached Iowa from 1999-2007. "I spent eight years in the Big Ten trying to guard Michigan State's transition game, and BYU's transition game is every bit as good, if not better."
The first meeting was a thriller for New Mexico fans.
It featured a great matchup between two of the West's top point guards. BYU's Jimmer Fredette scored 27 points but New Mexico's Dairese Gary had a career-high 25 points and shot 12-of-17 from the free throw line and scored his team's last seven points.
That was in Albuquerque, where New Mexico enjoys a homecourt advantage that is unrivaled within the league — unless you're talking about BYU's arena.
"BYU is a tough, tough place to play," Martinez said. "I don't know the last time UNM won there. It's a huge game. It's going to take a lot of focus and commitment on the floor."
The last time the Lobos left Provo with a victory was 2000.
Unlike many previous New Mexico teams, this season's Lobos have shown remarkable toughness away from The Pit, winning a school-record 10 times, including a neutral-floor win over Texas A&M in Houston. The Lobos have won six straight on the road.
To have a chance, Alford said New Mexico can't afford a slow start and must be within striking distance in the last five minutes.
"It's a difficult game — without question, our most difficult road game all year," he said. "The nice thing is we have had road success. We've played well away from The Pit. It's not a game going into it where we tell our guys we have to be superhuman."
BYU's challenge will be to stop New Mexico's versatile attack.
Some defenses focus on Gary, who led the Lobos with 23 points in a 72-66 win at Colorado State on Tuesday. Other times, opponents try to slow Darington Hobson, who leads New Mexico with averages of 15.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists.
"I'm so impressed with what they've done," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "Running off 12 straight conference wins in this league is quite an impressive feat. They can score in the post. They can score on the wing. They can shoot free throws."
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