The Rams lead the country in rebounding, grabbing 13.8 more loose balls per game than their opponents.
Tipoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.
The key is putting a body on CSU big man Colton Iverson, a 6-foot-10 senior transfer from Minnesota. It also means getting physical with 6-5 senior Pierce Hornung and 6-6 senior Greg Smith.
Combined, the trio averages about 25 rebounds a game. That includes 10.1 per night from Hornung, the top rebounder in the Mountain West Conference.
“This is a very experienced group,” said Steve Alford, UNM head coach. “They’ve been down big and come back, they’ve been in close games and pulled them out, so there’s a lot of concerns about this game.”
The primary concern is first place in the MWC.
At 16-2 overall and 3-0 in league play, the Lobos sit alone in first place, one game ahead of second place Colorado State (15-3, 2-1). They’re the only two teams in the nine-team conference above .500.
Whereas the Lobos have shown some muscle on the road this season — they’re 4-1 in true road games and 7-1 in all games outside The Pit — the Rams are seeking a rare quality win away from Moby Arena. They’ve won 24 straight at home but have struggled badly against strong teams away from there.
“Since Pierce Hornung’s been here , they’ve had one league road win against a winning team and that was at UNLV,” said Larry Eustachy, first-year CSU head coach. “That’s pretty staggering and we’re trying to change that.”
Iverson will have to deal with the two-headed monster that has become UNM’s low post game in recent weeks.
Sophomore 7-footer Alex Kirk and 6-9 junior Cameron Bairstow have transformed what was already supposed to be a solid Lobos squad into a nationally ranked outfit by providing a solid presence in the paint.
Kirk is averaging 17.3 points in conference play while Bairstow’s game has grown to feature a mid-range jumper that spreads defenses and eases congestion in the block.
Perhaps the best sign of all is the recent play of junior swing man Tony Snell. He’s averaging 17 points in MWC play, flashing signs of the potential that most Lobos fans have been hoping to see all season.
With just one senior (Chad Adams) in its starting lineup, New Mexico is facing a CSU starting five of all seniors. Four of them average double-digit scoring while the fifth, Hornung, is scoring a 9.6 clip.
Two of those starters are Division I transfers (Iverson and former Iowa State guard Wes Eikmeier), making the voracious man-to-man defense Eustachy’s teams are known for all the more dangerous.
“It’s going to be a tough week but if we stick to what we’ve been doing I think it’s going to be OK,” said Kendall Williams, Lobos junior point guard, who is the team’s leading scorer at 14.4 points per game.
Alford said his guards measure favorably with any team in the country. If those players — Williams, Hugh Greenwood, Jamal Fenton and Demetrius Walker — ever start shooting the ball with any accuracy, UNM’s ceiling is virtually unlimited. None of those four is shooting the ball better than Williams’ 40.7 percent from the field.
“My shot’s been a little inconsistent all year,” Williams said. “It’s just on me to hit shots. Defenses play me different ways.”
A UNM win would make the Lobos a clear front-runner in a wildly competitive MWC that has seen everyone beat up on one another in the season’s first two weeks.
“You’re not going to win or lose it in the first two weeks, but I like the position we’re in and we can better that position each and every week,” Alford said. “It’s not going to be easy playing the teams we’re going to have to play, but that’s obviously our goal.”
Traffic: A construction project at the intersection of Interstate 25 and Avenida Cesar Chavez has UNM officials suggesting fans seek an alternate route to The Pit.