The last time we saw the University of New Mexico Lobos they were fleeing Utah in the midst of a baffling slump, just happy to put Provo and Salt Lake City behind them.
In a matter of eight days, the Lobos lost to BYU, Utah and San Diego State, in that order, leaving them with a 1-4 league record.And these guys were the preseason pick to win the Western Athletic Conference championship.
The Lobos are feeling better these days, thanks to a four-game winning streak that has boosted their re
cord to 5-4 (15-6 overall). But they have only one slim hope of rejoining the WAC title chase: win today's televised rematch with 12th-ranked Utah, in The Pit.
That will be a tall order. The Utes, who haven't lost for two months (since Dec. 1), have won a school-record 17 consecutive games, one victory short of the 23-year-old WAC record. They own a record of 20-1 overall, 9-0 in WAC play. A win today probably would be enough to boost them into the Top 10 of the rankings.
"They epitomize what college basketball is about," says UNM coach Dave Bliss. "They play as a team. They are very good."
After losing to Utah 65-53 early last month, the Lobos revamped their offense and their lineup. They sacked their offensive scheme in favor of last year's simpler offense, and benched slumping forward Khari Jaxson in favor of Kurt Miller, a senior from Ogden. But what probably helped the Lobos most was returning to their home court.
The Lobos reached peak form in The Pit Thursday during a 95-55 rout of Air Force (a team that took Utah to the limit twice). The Lobos shot 63 percent from the field, which enabled them to run the uptempo game they prefer (they're 10-0 when they score more than 80 points in a game).
"It's really tough to play down at their place," says Ute coach Rick Majerus, in what is surely understatement (the Lobos have won 20 of their last 21 home games). "It's going to be a very, very difficult game there."
The Lobos are led by 7-foot-2 Luc Longley, who averages 18.6 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. "He is as good as it gets in college basketball in the middle," says Majerus. That might be so, but Longley has never played particularly well against the Utes. In the first
game against Utah last year, he made 3 of 10 field goal attempts and finished with 10 points and 8 rebounds. In the second game, he made 4 of 9 shots and had 12 points and 7 rebounds. In last month's game against Utah, he was limited to a season-low 7 shots (and made 5), and finished with 11 points, 7 rebounds and 6turnovers.
Even when Longley isn't scoring, though, he's dangerous. Some call him the finest passer in the post since Bill Walton. He had 9 assists in one game against Utah last year, and 7 against Utah this year.
The rest of the UNM lineup consists of 6-5 Rob Robbins (14 points per game), 6-5 Ike Williams (6.5), 6-2 Willie Banks and the 6-4 Miller (4.1). Miller, who was moved to the backcourt this season, has returned to his old forward position, where he started all last season.