New Mexico-Air Force Preview

The Associated Press

While New Mexico already has secured a fourth Mountain West regular-season title in five years, it doesn't want to add an unexpected loss to its NCAA tournament resume.

The 12th-ranked Lobos, however, haven't had much of a problem against Air Force.

Only two teams in the nation have more wins than New Mexico, which is surely a lock to make the Big Dance but could potentially hurt its seeding by failing to beat the Falcons for a 14th straight time Saturday night.

It appears the Lobos (26-4, 13-2) may be in line for a top-three seed in the NCAA tournament - only Gonzaga and Middle Tennessee have won more games. However, that certainly could change if they slip up against the Falcons (16-12, 7-8) or early in next week's Mountain West tournament.

New Mexico could be in danger of an upset if its recent unimpressive play continues, having struggled to win its last two games against the conference's cellar dwellers.

The Lobos clinched a second straight MWC title with a 53-42 home win over Wyoming last Saturday, but the ninth-place Cowboys were within three points with 10 minutes to play. New Mexico also had a difficult time at last-place Nevada on Wednesday, trailing with less than eight minutes remaining before going on a 17-0 run to pull out a 75-62 victory.

"We did what we've done all year, we just eventually wore a team down in the last eight minutes," coach Steve Alford said.

Tony Snell scored a team-high 25 points on 8-of-11 shooting, while fellow junior Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk had double-doubles in the team's sixth straight win.

"Guys have been through it before," Bairstow said. "It's just been a trend the entire year, closing it out in the last couple of minutes. We don't panic when we're in that situation."

New Mexico has not struggled to close out Air Force, winning 13 consecutive meetings by an average of 17.3 points dating to Feb. 10, 2007. The past four matchups have been decided by 26.8 per game, including an 81-58 victory Feb. 6 as all five Lobos starters scored in double figures led by Snell, Bairstow and Kirk with 14 apiece.

The 7-foot Kirk has averaged 17.5 points on 55.3 percent shooting in the last four games, and Bairstow also has stepped up with 14.7 per game over his last three.

The Lobos have done a solid job taking care of the basketball in their recent tear, finishing with single-digit turnover totals in five of the six victories.

Though they're shooting 41.8 percent on the season - the lowest by a New Mexico team in 51 years - they hit 50.0 percent Wednesday and have won 22 straight when shooting 40.0 or better.

Air Force ranks second-to-last in the conference in defensive field-goal percentage (43.9) and enters this matchup having dropped six of eight, starting with last month's loss at New Mexico.

The Falcons, though, are 12-2 at home and have been competitive against the two ranked opponents to visit Clune Arena this year. They upset No. 22 San Diego State 70-67 on Feb. 2 and lost 89-86 to No. 24 Colorado State on Feb. 16.

Michael Lyons had a career-high 45 points against the Rams but has since averaged 10.0 in four games, nearly eight below his conference-leading average.

Lyons and fellow senior Mike Fitzgerald each finished with a team-high 16 in the first meeting with the Lobos.