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Cougars teetering on NCAA bubble

ALBUQUERQUE — Right now, BYU coach Steve Cleveland isn't worrying about convoluted conference tie-breaking guidelines, fluctuating RPIs and subjective bracket projections.

He knows that for the Cougars to reach their objective of playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years, the formula is simple — at least in theory.

"We probably have to win four more games to get into the NCAAs," Cleveland said.

His team's quest to land an invitation to the Big Dance continues tonight when BYU (19-8 overall, 8-4 in the Mountain West) visits The Pit to face New Mexico (17-9, 6-6) at 7 p.m. The game can be seen on a taped-delay basis at 9 p.m. on Channel 30.

Four victories in a maximum of five games is a tall order. BYU has two regular-season contests remaining, against the Lobos and at Air Force Saturday. The Cougars could play as many as three games in the Mountain West Conference Tournament next weekend in Las Vegas.

Two losses this weekend, or even a split, might leave BYU no other alternative than to win the conference tournament crown — and thus earn the league's automatic bid — to qualify for the field of 65.

To receive an at-large berth, BYU might have to defeat the Lobos and Falcons and then advance to the MWC tournament championship game.

In other words, there's little margin for error. The Cougars are learning how fragile life on the bubble is.

"There is no back door to the NCAA Tournament. You earn it," Cleveland said. "You earn it by winning on the road and winning in the conference tournament."

BYU is still in contention for the regular-season title, but the Cougars would have to sweep this weekend and league-leaders Utah and Wyoming (both are 9-3) would have to stumble on the road. The Utes face Air Force tonight and New Mexico Saturday. The Cowboys play at San Diego State tonight and UNLV Saturday.

"We know what we have to do," Cleveland said. "In terms of winning the conference championship, we have our backs against the wall."

Still, the Cougars are guaranteed to be no worse than a No. 3 seed in the conference tournament, with a probable matchup against San Diego State in the quarterfinals. A victory or two this weekend certainly would give BYU confidence and momentum.

"It would be good to go into the Mountain West Tournament on a winning note," Cleveland said. "We've been able to do that the last three years."

"These games this week are huge for us," said BYU forward Eric Nielsen. "We must win both and take care of business. One thing we've learned this year is we can't play mediocre on the road and expect to win."

The Cougars are 1-4 away from home in the MWC. BYU has shown flashes of brilliance on the road, but has yet to play a complete game on a foreign court in conference action.

New Mexico, meanwhile, is 13-2 at home and always difficult to beat at The Pit. Here in Albuquerque, some UNM fans have abandoned hopes of going to the NCAAs. A second-straight NIT bid is likely — unless the Lobos turn things around in a hurry.

New Mexico experienced a roller-coaster ride in February. It began with a 16-point loss at BYU, followed by two more consecutive setbacks. The most damaging defeat occurred at the hands of lowly Air Force on the road.

The Lobos rebounded to put together a four-game winning streak, including a road win against Colorado State last Saturday.

Then came an embarrassing loss a few days ago on ESPN's Big Monday — one Albuquerque paper called it "Black Monday" — at Wyoming as the Cowboys whipped New Mexico, 81-61.

Cougars on the air

BYU at New Mexico

Thursday, 7 p.m.

TV: Ch. 30 (9 p.m. tape delay)

Radio: KSL, 1160 AM