Air Force-New Mexico Preview
It's probably not a big surprise that No. 15 New Mexico is in first place near the midpoint of the Mountain West season.
The fact that Air Force is aiming for the top spot is simply stunning.
The Lobos have beaten the Falcons 12 straight times, including three dominant victories last season, as the teams head into Wednesday night's showdown in Albuquerque.
New Mexico (19-3, 6-1) has three returning starters from a squad that tied for the regular-season MWC crown and won the conference tournament title.
Air Force (14-6, 5-2) tied for last place in the league last season and was picked to finish at the bottom again in 2012-13.
Instead, the Falcons are in a second-place tie with Colorado State, one game behind New Mexico. Air Force is shooting a conference-best 48.4 percent behind top scorer Michael Lyons, second in the MWC with 18.1 points per game.
"They are coming to Albuquerque for first place," coach Steve Alford told New Mexico's official website. "They are loaded with seniors and this is the last go-around for these guys and they are hungry. They are a huge challenge to our defense because of the way they shoot the ball."
Air Force's last win in the series was a 60-51 victory Feb. 10, 2007. The Lobos took the three matchups last season by an average of 28.0 points as Lyons averaged 10.7 points and 27.0 percent shooting.
"We haven't had success against New Mexico, we've not beaten them," Falcons coach Dave Pilipovich said. "And that's an unbelievable venue to play in, it's just great for college basketball, it's great for the Mountain West. So we're looking forward to that game."
Air Force won its fifth straight Saturday, 70-67 over then-No. 22 San Diego State despite a 37-23 rebounding disadvantage.
That's a concern for Pilipovich, who starts one player taller than 6-foot-6. The Lobos have three starters at least that tall led by 7-footer Alex Kirk.
"When things go bad for us, it's usually because the lack of size and strength and usually the rebounding advantage will really hurt us," Pilipovich said.
"It's a good thing that New Mexico is pretty small, right? Their size and strength and depth inside is definitely a concern."
Alford, though, doesn't see his team's edge in size as a major advantage.
"We've got a 7-foot center who I think is really, really good," Alford said. "They may have experience. Every team has different tendencies, good and bad, but in this league, your bad isn't real bad."
The Lobos have won 10 straight MWC home games after a 75-62 victory over Nevada on Saturday. Hugh Greenwood scored 15 points and reserve Demetrius Walker added 12 in 18 minutes.
Air Force guard Todd Fletcher totaled 32 points in two victories last week. He's part of a senior class eager for its first win over the Lobos.
"We know how great New Mexico is but we're going to prepare like we always do," Fletcher said. "I mean, we were picked ninth in the league, so we have nothing to lose."