Stevens: Lobos vs. Aztecs Is A Game That Players/Fans Ache For

Feb. 14, 2012

New Mexico Lobos Men's Basketball - On The Mountain West Road

Wednesday: 8:15 p.m. (MT), New Mexico (20-4, 6-2) at San Diego State (20-4, 6-2)

On TV: CBS Sports Network (274 Comcast, 613 DirecTV, 158 Dish)
Lobo Radio Network: 770-AM KKOB - Scott Galetti & Scott Didrickson
GoLobos.com: Game Recap, Final Stats, GameTracker

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

Sure, it's a game offering payback and revenge. The San Diego State Aztecs beat the Lobos in The Pit. That hurts - both pride and record.

But there are so many more neat things about the New Mexico Lobos' venture into the hostile Viejas Arenas Wednesday night in San Diego.

It could be a game that decides the Mountain West title. The winner of this game is capable of running the MW table the rest of the way in. UNM might have the tougher path with UNLV coming to The Pit on Saturday. The Aztecs went 1-1 vs. Vegas.

"This is a big chase," Alford said of the three-team dash to the Mountain's finish line.

For sure, it's a game that will influence seeding in both the Mountain West tourney in Vegas and likely on the NCAA bracket. It would be nice for any of these three teams to have the other two teams on the other side of the MW bracket.

But once you push beyond that important stuff, it comes down to two proud teams courting 20-4 marks. It comes down to two determined teams flowing with talent. It comes down to two ornery teams not wanting to lose and needing to win.

This game will be a hard-court war -- a war of talent, systems, defense, rebounds, resolve and moments. It is a game that players and fans ache for.

"It has all the makings of a great contest," said Alford. "They'll be focused. We'll be focused - sold out, great environment."

An obvious key to any ball game is doing what you want to do on both ends of the court at a higher level than the other guy. "Can we implement" what we want to do, says Alford.

The Lobos have looked awesome over the past five games, winning by an average of 23 points. The Lobos imposed their will on Colorado State, TCU, Air Force, Boise State and Wyoming. The Lobos implemented. They did not implement in losses to SDSU and UNLV.

And now it's No. 13/15 San Diego State in Viejas. Not the same thing and not the same talent level. Can the Lobos still impose their will on Aztecs defending Aztec turf? Sure. But this isn't Wyoming in The Pit. This challenge has a hard crust on it.

"They play awfully well at home," said Alford.

The Aztecs' 20-4 record has been carved out with the help of a 15-1 home mark with the lone stain coming from Creighton's visit (64-63) on Nov. 30. SDSU has been the surprise of the Mountain because the Aztecs lost so much talent from a year ago and simply reloaded.

What coach Steve Fisher has loaded with is big, athletic guards: 6-foot-3 Chase Tapley (16.2), 6-5 Jamaal Franklin (16.0), 6-3 Xavier Thames (10.2) and 6-5 James Rahon (9.5). Franklin is the only player in the Mountain to rank in the top three in both scoring and rebounding (7.3).

"They have very good guards," said Alford. "They didn't start the four-guard lineup until they got into league play. This four-guard lineup has been very, very good for them."

One reason that four-guard lineup works is because the Aztec guards are not little. It also helps that Franklin hits the boards like a power forward. Fisher also has some quick, mobile forwards doing the dirty work inside: 6-11 Garrett Green, 6-7 Tim Shelton and 6-8 DeShawn Stephens.

The Lobos might have a slight advantage inside in scoring behind Drew Gordon (11.9), but there are enough Aztec big bodies to make things tough inside for the Lobo senior.

Alford knows he has to get production from his edge: Kendall Williams (12.2), Tony Snell (12.3), Jamal Fenton (7.1), Phillip McDonald (6.9) and Hugh Greenwood (6.0). "We feel like we have a good backcourt, too," said Alford.

The Aztecs can beat you with 3-pointers, jump shots, penetration, quickness and even depth as 10 Aztecs play 10 to 33 minutes a game.

There have been a few Aztec teams over the years that have simply tried to out-athlete and outscore you, but this group seems to honor the conceit of defense. SDSU opponents are shooting 39.6 percent from the field. The UNLV Rebs, who shot 52 percent in beating UNM by 17 in Vegas, shot 35.3 percent in Viejas Arena.

The Aztecs can make it tough on visitors trying to implement their will. But so can the Lobos.

Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Sports Columnist and Associate Sports Editor at The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at rstevens50@comcast.net.