To the locals in Albuquerque, N.M., "The Pit" is a term of endearment. To visiting basketball teams, it often feels about as inviting as its name suggests.

More than 18,000 red-clad New Mexico Lobos fans will jam the place nobody even bothers to call University Arena anymore when fifth-ranked Wake Forest faces the Lobos tonight (9, Fox Sports Net). For the Demon Deacons, it is the final stop on a pre-ACC season journey dedicated to diversity - diversity of playing style, environment and physical atmosphere.Wake has played two neutral-site games at Madison Square Garden; amid the Orange Krush of Illinois students; against Temple's patience-thinning, dedicated zone defense in Philadelphia; and at home against the simultaneously physical and fast Texas Longhorns. The Deacs have seen three teams from the Atlantic 10 and one each from the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-10, Big East and tonight the Mountain West. In a month, the Deacs play at Cincinnati of Conference USA.

Deacs coach Skip Prosser, who drops the occasional Shakespearean reference, is likely to hit his cynics with Polonius out of Hamlet: "Though this be madness, yet there is method in (it)."

"While some would question the sanity of the coach who made up this schedule - including my wife on a daily basis - I hope it prepares us for the ACC," Prosser said.

Polonius had no comment. But maybe he could help defend the 3-point line against the Lobos, who shoot 39 percent as a team from long range and who launch an average of 22 per game. (The national average is 18.)

At home, where New Mexico (10-1) has played all but two of its games, it seems the 3-pointers come in bunches because the altitude (4,955 feet above sea level) tends to wear on visitors. And then the home crowd, famous enough to have lured the 1983 Final Four to the facility, kicks in.

A year or two ago, the combination would have especially concerned Wake's coaches in regard to center Eric Williams, whose endurance would have been compromised. But even on a sore ankle in Saturday's win over Texas, Williams got up and down the floor regularly. In one stretch, he got layups on four straight trips, three in transition or on the secondary break.

"Most teams - nine teams out of 10 - they'll have a good big man, but they don't want to throw him the ball on the fast break because they think he's too big to run it down or he may not be able to stop himself and they might call a travel on him," Williams said.

"With this team, with me losing weight and tied in with the way (point guard) Chris Paul plays, I'm able to stop myself when he throws me the ball. He'll lob it up to me and I'll finish."

Truth is, Wake doesn't absolutely have to win tonight. Having already knocked off Texas, Arizona, George Washington, Richmond and Temple, they've got an impressive resume. Those five victims are likely to remain in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) rankings top 50 all season.

And in scheduling a game a long way from home and at altitude, Prosser will expose his team to travel it could - but doesn't want to - face in March.

"The process is more important than the result," Prosser said.

"I don't want to go off onto a tangent - although I already have - but the process of challenging your players in that kind of a venue is a good thing."

\ Contact Rob Daniels at 373-7028 or rdaniels@news-record.com

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