The University of Utah Runnin' Utes can clinch the Western Athletic Conference basketball championship when they meet New Mexico tonight in Albuquerque.
The WAC title race, now in its final week, has come to this: If Utah beats New Mexico, or if BYU loses to Texas-El Paso tonight, the Utes are the WAC champions.The Utes, 15-1 in league play, hold a slim one-game lead over the Cougars, but they would win any tiebreaker between the two teams because they have beaten the Cougars twice this season.
The Utes, 22-3, probably have more at stake than a WAC title. They are ranked ninth in both national polls and are well on their way to securing a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Tonight's Utah-New Mexico game will be televised live locally by KUTV-Ch. 2, beginning at 7:35.
The Utes pounded the Lobos when they opened league play against each other on Jan. 2 in Salt Lake City, winning 78-45. However, the Lobos, despite a lengthy controversy over their considerable academic deficiencies, have played well for the most part since then. They are 19-6 overall and 11-5 in WAC play, which places them third in the league standings.
The Utes haven't beaten the Lobos in Albuquerque since 1987. Even during their 30-4 season two years ago, the Utes lost in Albuquerque, ending a 17-game winning streak and incurring their only WAC loss of the season.
New Mexico's lineup, which utilizes three guards, consists of 6-7 Lewis LaMar (3.5 points per game, 4.5 rebounds), 6-8 Khari Jaxon (12.1, 7.5), 6-1 Steve Logan (13.6, 4.4), 6-4 Ike Williams (15.1, 4.1) and 5-7 Greg Brown (9.3, 1.5).
"New Mexico is a very good team," says Ute coach Rick Majerus. "They probably have the best athletic big man in the league in Khari Jaxon. They have two potent scorers in Ike Williams and Steve Logan, and they are a very quick team."
The Utes will once again face the problem of limited depth against the Lobos. Darroll Wright, the team's top reserve, has been suspended for at least the balance of the regular season, leaving Utah with just two proven reserves - Mark Rydalch and Tony Block. Also, Larry Cain, Utah's starting center, sprained his right ankle near the end of last Saturday's BYU game. He is listed as probable against New Mexico.
Tonight's game will present several top matchups. Jimmy Soto, Utah's 5-foot-8 point guard, could go head-to-head with another small, quick player in New Mexico's 5-7 Brown. Utah's Phil Dixon held Williams to just four points in the first meeting. And Utah's Josh Grant and Lobos' Jaxon rank among the league's top big men.
Grant, who appears certain to be named the WAC's Most Valuable Player for the second time in three years, leads the league in both scoring (16.5 points per game) and rebounding (11.2).