Two games into last year's WAC season, BYU had split on a San Diego State-Hawaii road trip and was facing home contests against UTEP and New Mexico.

How things change. This season the Cougars have been to San Diego and Honolulu, they are 1-1, and UTEP and New Mexico are coming to town.That may be where the similarity ends.

Last year's team beat the Miners by two in overtime, then edged the Lobos by one. Those Cougars then won five straight to take a WAC lead that they never relinquished en route to a regular-season tie.

This year's Cougars will be hard-pressed to keep up with more experienced, more talented opponents this week, starting with UTEP at 7:30 Thursday night in the Marriott Center.

The Miners are 10-2 overall and ranked 25th by AP, having beaten Georgetown by 11 while losing only to New Mexico State - twice. They opened their WAC campaign last weekend by polishing off Air Force 73-47 and Colorado State 63-53 in El Paso. With 13-1 Utah looming as Saturday's opponent, UTEP Coach Don Haskins is probably looking at the BYU game as the must-win encounter on this trip.

No matter what Haskins is thinking, UTEP should prove to be a handful for the youthful Cougs.

"UTEP and New Mexico are veteran teams and are going to be a tough challenge for us," said BYU Coach Roger Reid, "especially since they were picked to finish in the top half of the conference."

Opinions about the Miners' potential were mixed entering this season. WAC writers and coaches predicted a fourth-place finish for them; an NCAA preview publication tabbed them first.

The Miners aren't as big as they were last year, having lost 7-foot Greg Foster and 6-10 Antonio Davis to graduation. They also lost senior guard Prince Stewart to academic problems, senior forward Francis Ezenwa to a back injury, and have been without the services of 6-8 Marlon Maxey, their leading scorer, for several games with a knee injury. He hasn't played since before Christmas.

But unlike most teams, which would be devastated by the loss of a leading scorer, UTEP continues to thrive because of the balance that Haskins always strives for. Four of the Miners' five starters average between 9 and 13 points per game, and just about everybody on the team has started a game this season.

Likely starters tonight are 6-8 David Van Dyke at center, 6-8 Von Bennett and 6-5 Johnny Melvin at forwards, and 6-1 guards Gym Bice and Henry Hall.

Shawn Bradley, the 7-6 center, will start for BYU, probably along with forwards Steve Schreiner and Kenneth Roberts and guards Nathan Call and Scott Moon.

Tonight's game will not be televised live. It will be rebroadcast by KBYU (Channel 11) at 10:30 p.m.