Utah's Andre Miller has enjoyed a terrific WAC season and perhaps had his best game of the year in the loss at the Pit (those last two turnovers, notwithstanding). Two nights ago at El Paso, he played just 20 minutes but still came up with 10 points, seven rebounds, five assists and five steals. Contrast that with Lobo point guard David Gibson, who played the whole 40 minutes Thursday against BYU and got exactly one assist, one rebound and no points. Underrated Drew Hansen, known for his defense and court savvy, has turned into Utah's best three-point shooter this year, hitting 48.6 percent on 34 of 70. The Lobos counter with freshman Kevin Henry, the replacement for Royce Olney, who tore the ACL in his knee during the Lobos' 29-point loss to TCU last week. Henry has a promising future but is nowhere near the threat Olney is as a scorer.
With Olney out, more production is expected from the Lobos' starting forwards, Clayton Shields and Lamont Long. They are smaller and quicker than Utah's, making them more difficult to guard. Shields leads the Lobos with 17.7 points per game and is second in rebounding at 6.6 and is shooting 43 percent from 3-point range. Sophomore Lamont Long is scoring 14.4 points per game and averages a team-high 36.6 minutes per game. Utah's Hanno Mottola has been inconsistent all year but looks like an NBA prospect when he's on. He left Thursday's game early because of nausea. Alex Jensen still doesn't look to score but is the best defensive stopper with a knack for important rebounds.
EDGE: NEW MEXICO
Michael Doleac and Kenny Thomas don't look anything alike physically, but they play similar styles that aren't typical of most centers. Both can bang inside and knock people around, but both aren't afraid to be found out firing from the 3-point line. Thomas is hitting 38.6 percent from 3-point range (22 of 57), while Doleac is 39.3 percent (11 of 28) the best big men in the country. Doleac enjoys nearly a 4-inch height advantage, and he'll try to get Thomas into foul trouble early. Behind Thomas is Ben Baum, who just averages 1.5 points in just 7.2 minutes per game, while Doleac is backed up by Jon Carlisle and Nate Althoff, with Mottola also able to play center.
From the time he inserts Jordie McTavish around the 16:00 mark, Utah coach Rick Majerus will contiually shuffle players in and out before finally letting his starters play together the last five minutes or so. The reserves play less in the second half, but five reserves are averaging at least 9.4 minutes per game. Freshman Trace Caton has been the best of the bunch and lately Majerus has been saying of him "he's really a starter," because of his contributions. Caton is Utah's second-best 3-point shooter at 44.9 percent. On the other hand, New Mexico coach Dave Bliss would play his starters 40 minutes if he could. The other night against BYU, three starters went the whole 40, and Thomas would have if not for early foul trouble. However, Bliss' failure to develop a bench is hurting now with Olney out for the season and top reserve Henry playing as a starter. The top reserve is Greg Davis, who averages just 2.0 points a game in 8.0 minutes of action.
The Utes had the revenge factor in the first game because of the loss the year before at the Pit. Now they have it again, for that Feb. 1 debacle when they blew a 9-point lead in the final three minutes. The Utes are also motivated by the prospect of their fourth straight No. 1 seed at the WAC tournament and an outright Mountain Division title. New Mexico could be down after the shocking 21-point thrashing by BYU, on top of the 29-point loss to TCU the game before. But they may pull it together, figuring their whole season is on the line and come out with a strong performance. While the Ute crowd will never match the decibel level at The Pit, the Ute faithful will be out in full force for the biggest game of the year.
With everything seemingly on their side, revenge, momentum, a noisy crowd, a hurting opponent, it may seem like the Utes will cruise like they did in their 20-point win over the Lobos in Salt Lake a year ago. However, look for the Lobos to be ready to come out fighting and not let their whole season go down the tubes. Still, the Utes should prevail.
UTAH 72, NEW MEXICO 60