SALT LAKE CITY — Having already proved it can beat some of the better teams on its schedule this year, the Utah basketball team has the chance to prove itself against three ranked teams over the next three weeks, beginning tonight when No. 15 New Mexico comes to the Huntsman Center for a 7 p.m. contest.
The Utes are coming off a 64-55 victory over TCU on Wednesday night, the same night the Lobos picked up a huge road victory over UNLV for their eighth straight victory. The Lobos are first in the Mountain West Conference at 8-2 and 22-3 overall.
"They're playing as well as anybody in our league right now," said Ute coach Jim Boylen. "They have versatility, multiple ball-handlers and are athletic."
The Lobos have started the same five players every game this year, led by former College of Eastern Utah star Darington Hobson, who leads the team with 15.6 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. Forward Roman Martinez is the only senior on the team and he averages 13.9 ppg while shooting a team-best 42.9 percent from 3-point range.
The other starters are point guard Dairese Gary (11.6 ppg), guard Phillip McDonald (11.3 ppg) and A.J. Hardeman, the only real inside player, who averages 7.6 points and 5.4 rebounds.
Forward Will Brown (4.0 ppg) and guard Nate Garth (5.0 ppg) are the top reserves.
"Hobson is a difficult matchup and Martinez is hard to guard," said Boylen, who expects to start Jay Watkins on Hobson and perhaps Jace Tavita on Martinez.
The Utes have used seven different starting lineups, including the one they used for the first time Wednesday night in Fort Worth with Luka Drca, Marshall Henderson and Tavita out front and Watkins and David Foster inside.
Boylen loved Utah's defensive effort against TCU and is likely to stick with the same lineup against the Lobos, with Carlon Brown seeing 25 minutes or so off the bench.
"I liked our defense and Tavita had his best game of the year," he said. "We also kept our turnovers down (nine) and I was encouraged about the way we handled the ball."
The Utes seem to be shortening their bench as no other players played double-figure minutes Wednesday as Kim Tillie played a season-low five minutes and Shawn Glover played just eight. Tillie could play more in place of Foster rather than Jason Washburn, who struggled Wednesday.
The biggest weakness for the Lobos is their free-throw shooting, as they average just 67.7 percent from the line. From the field, they aren't the greatest shooting team at just 44.2 percent.
Still, one of the keys, according to Boylen, will be keeping the Lobos off the free throw line. In last month's game at Albuquerque, the Lobos shot 38 free throws compared to 24 for Utah.
After tonight's game, the Utes will stay home for a visit from UNLV Wednesday night at 8 p.m. The Rebels (7-3 in MWC play), who are 23rd in this week's AP poll, play at San Diego State this afternoon.
GAME NOTES: Last month, New Mexico beat Utah 74-57, although it was a five-point game with five minutes left. ... The last three Utah-UNM games in Salt Lake have been decided by a total of four points. Utah won by one point last year, lost by one the year before and won by two in double overtime in 2007. ... Before the 2008 home loss, the Utes had beaten the Lobos 18 straight times at the Huntsman Center. ... The Utes lead the overall series 78-47.
Utes on the air
New Mexico (22-3, 8-2
MWC) at Utah (11-12,4-5)
Tonight, 7 p.m.
TV: The mtn. Radio: 700