How does a No. 17 stop the No. 1?

FLC will host Metro State in a basketball first at Whalen Gym

No. 1 Matt Mazarei and Fort Lewis College will try to put a stop not only to the Metro State offense but also to the No. 1 Roadrunners’ 22-game winning streak tonight at Whalen Gymnasium. It’s the first time Whalen Gym has hosted Division II’s top men’s basketball team. Enlarge photo

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file photo

No. 1 Matt Mazarei and Fort Lewis College will try to put a stop not only to the Metro State offense but also to the No. 1 Roadrunners’ 22-game winning streak tonight at Whalen Gymnasium. It’s the first time Whalen Gym has hosted Division II’s top men’s basketball team.

An adjustment here and there, but otherwise business as usual this week for Fort Lewis College men’s basketball.

But while its another Friday night in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, it’s anything but business as usual.

After all, a No. 1 doesn’t come knocking on your door every day. Or, in the Skyhawks’ case, ever.

Today will mark the first time in program history that FLC, ranked 17th, will host the top-ranked team in Division II, a mantle held for the last five weeks by 22-0 Metro State. And its a mantle the Roadrunners ascended to after their last meeting with FLC, a 71-65 victory for Metro State in Denver.

The Skyhawks have played against No. 1 teams before away from home. They lost 112-72 to Fort Hays State at the 1996 RMAC Shootout, then fell again to the Tigers 105-69 in a regular-season tilt the next year. In 2004, top-ranked Metro State topped FLC 90-76 at the RMAC Shootout, which then was held in Colorado Springs.

But the chance to possibly end the Roadrunners’ run at the top in Durango has the players and staff fired up, according to Skyhawks guard Matthias Weissl.

“Our whole team, our whole staff, the coaches, the whole community, I guess, is ready to play,” Weissl said. “We’re ready to compete and get a great game going. ... This should be a solid crowd coming into the Whalen (Gymnasium).”

Bob Hofman, however, isn’t quite as concerned with the number next to the Metro State moniker. After all, Metro State tends to bring a strong team to town most every year.

“I don’t even think about that. What I do think about is a great team coming in to play. One, two, three, 10 – they’ve got a really good program. We feel we’ve got a really good program,” Hofman said. “It’s always fun to play against the best programs.”

At the heart of the Roadrunners’ winning streak is their unique brand of full-court pressure, which has allowed them to force 17.6 turnovers per game on average and accrue an average turnover margin of plus-7.5 per game. That’s been the biggest change in preparations for the Skyhawks this week, who typically do some game-planning while mostly working on refining what they do well.

The press utilized by Metro State, which Weissl said involves an atypically high amount of attempts to trap the ball in the middle of the floor, has been perhaps the biggest focal point as far as planning for the different look the Roadrunners will show as opposed to other teams.

There’s no question that getting off to a strong start is of critical importance every time out. But for the Skyhawks, it may take on an even bigger role tonight.

In front of a crowd of 2,011 at Colorado Mesa, Metro State jumped out quickly, building a double-digit lead in the first 10 minutes and leading by as many as 16 in the first half, helping take the crowd and the Mavericks out of the game early before winning by 12.

“They were really ready to play, meaning Mesa, but they couldn’t simulate the level of intensity that Metro came out with, and they got behind a lot early before they could assimilate to the style,” Hofman said. “And I think with Metro, that’s always a fear. When they get you down early, they know how to go for the throat.”

Ball control, then, will be critical. FLC is fifth in the RMAC in turnovers, averaging 13.8 per game. The Skyhawks were in the ballpark of that mark in the earlier loss to Metro State, turning it over 15 times, but the Roadrunners, tops in the league at 10.1 turnovers per contest, coughed it up just seven times and held a 19-5 advantage in points off turnovers.

FLC will look to get healthy, too, with sharpshooting guard Nick Tomsick sitting out Thursday’s practice with the flu. He’ll be a game-time decision.

To score the victory, FLC will have to hem in Metro State’s big three – Brandon Jefferson, Mitch McCarron and Jonathan Morse – as much as possible. More importantly, the Skyhawks will need focus – to break the press, to start strong, to properly utilize the energy of what could be their largest crowd of the season.

“Our key to success is, I think, we’ve just got to be focused,” Weissl said. “Because a lot of times, we used to play Metro, and they’d just come out, and we wouldn’t know what hit us at first. ... We’ve got to know exactly what they’re doing.”

rowens@durangoherald.com