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New Mexico's Kendall Williams reacts after being called for a foul during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kansas, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013, in Kansas City, Mo. Kansas won 80-63. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Utah State basketball: New Mexico looms for Aggies
MW basketball » USU will try to avoid fourth straight loss.
First Published Feb 24 2014 05:11 pm • Last Updated Feb 24 2014 11:30 pm

As San Diego State rang up its huge win streak on the way to a top-10 national ranking, it seemed almost forgotten that 2014 was supposed to be the year of the Lobo.

New Mexico had been picked to win the Mountain West. The Lobos were bringing in three starters who could start for any team in the conference. They would be fueled on disappointment following an embarrassing early postseason exit thanks to some Harvard boys.

At a glance

Utah State at No. 25 New Mexico

University Arena, Albuquerque, N.M.

Tipoff »  7:05 p.m.

TV » CBS Sports Network

Radio »  1280 AM

Records »  USU 15-12, 5-10; UNM 21-5, 12-2

Series history » USU leads 19-5

Last meeting » Jan. 28 at USU; UNM 78, USU 65

About the Aggies » Utah State is looking to avoid its fourth straight loss, which would be the first time in Stew Morrill’s tenure in Logan the Aggies have lost four consecutive games twice in one season. … The Aggies continue to be one of the best passing teams in the nation, ranking No. 8 in assists per game (16.6) and No. 14 in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.48). … Senior center Jarred Shaw has scored in double digits in five of his last six games.

About the Lobos »  The Lobos re-entered the AP top 25 this week for the first time since November, and since being ranked as high as No. 19 earlier this year. … New Mexico has two of the most frequent visitors to the free-throw line, with Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams combining for 220 attempts. … Craig Neal has 21 wins in his first season as head coach.

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Yes, people seemed to forget. But as New Mexico pounded the Aztecs into submission on Saturday, they remembered.

Utah State (15-12, 5-10) heads to Albuquerque to take on the Lobos (21-5, 12-2) in their lair, as the No. 25 team in the nation seems to be coming into its prime. New Mexico is healthy and as formidable as ever. And the Aggies, on a three-game losing streak, are fully aware of the challenge ahead.

"I think right now, they’re probably playing better than anybody," coach Stew Morrill said. "They are just so effective at every position. They’re very, very good offensively and very solid defensively."

It might not be exactly right to compare the program to Goliath — it’s more like the Hydra: Cut off one part of its attack, and it’ll hurt you another way.

There’s Cameron Bairstow, the CBS national player of the week, who muscles his way into the paint with bulk unparalleled in the conference. If he’s stopped, which isn’t often, he can find playmaking point guard Kendall Williams, who can drive to the rim or pull it up. New Mexico has shooters who can get very hot from deep, or simply load up on points from the free-throw line.

The Aggies are painfully familiar with all of these weapons, which dismantled them at the Spectrum in a 78-65 loss last month. And the Lobos will have another option in 7-footer Alex Kirk, who has some touch for a player his size.

In the paint, Utah State will have to be ready to bang with the best big men in the league.

"We’re just going to have to make sure we’re on top of them," center Jordan Stone said. "We’re going to have to play better defense than we have. We’re definitely going to be physical and just try to keep the ball out of there. That will be the plan, I guess."

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The Aggies will be a steep underdog, as much for their own recent play as for New Mexico’s.

In their last three losses, the Aggies have struggled to pull together complete efforts. Some troubling trends have arisen: poor perimeter shooting, slow first-half starts and defense that comes and goes. The team is sitting in ninth place in the standings, a half-game ahead of Air Force.

Morrill said his team’s approach to playing at the Pit would be to try to take the air out of their situation. Pressure to win hasn’t helped, he said, so he wants his Aggies to find a way to enjoy the remaining three games of the regular season without tightening up.

"We’re at the point where we need to go have fun playing basketball, quit putting so much pressure on ourselves and let the chips fall where they may," he said.


Twitter: @kylegoon

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