- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Fans in New Mexico have big dreams in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. For the third year in a row, the state’s top two schools - New Mexico and New Mexico State - are going to the dance. And this time they are packed with experience and a lot of talent.

But after two straight early exits from the tournament by both, fans say this year they are being more restrained.

“I have no expectations. None,” said 34-year-old Todd Johnson, owner of Dos Hermanos burrito shop in Albuquerque and a New Mexico Lobos fan. “I’m happy they are there but I’m not getting my hopes up this time.”

Restrained or not, the state once again has caught March Madness fever after the interstate rivals won their respective conference titles to earn tournament spots. From Las Cruces to Albuquerque, fans are pulling out their jerseys, setting up viewing parties and taking to social media to discuss their chances.

Seventh-seeded New Mexico (27-6) is scheduled Friday to take on No. 10 Stanford (21-12) in the South Region in St. Louis. The Lobos and the Cardinals are playing for the first time since 2001-02 and the winner will face the Eastern Kentucky-Kansas winner.

Meanwhile, 13th-seeded New Mexico State (26-9) will face No. 4 San Diego State (29-4) on Thursday in Spokane, Wash. The Aggies, led by 7-foot 5-inch, 360-pound center Sim Bhullar, are expected to give the Aztecs trouble despite their lower seed.

The race to the tournament even affected New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who after signing a slew of bills, jumped on a plane to Las Vegas to watch both the Lobos and Aggies in their title games last weekend. After the Lobos defeated San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament title game on Saturday, Martinez and her husband, Chuck Franco, traded in their New Mexico gear for New Mexico State attire to cheer on the Aggies over Idaho in the Western Athletic Conference title game hours later.

She also tweeted photos from the scene.

“They’ve got a sense of spirit that is amazing,” said Martinez, who sported New Mexico Lobos shirt during an announcement last week on a drop in alcohol-related traffic deaths.

A spokesman for Martinez said the governor plans on attending New Mexico’s game in St. Louis.

Still, many fans said they want to remain cautious especially after much-touted New Mexico was shocked by Harvard in the first round last year. Cory Munoz, 27, an admissions adviser for the University of New Mexico, said many fans are still hurt by last year’s surprise early exit.

“Last year, I personally overlooked Harvard,” said Munoz. “This year, I’m a little bit more guarded.”

But will the interstate rivals be cheering for each other?

“Absolutely,” Johnson, the burrito shop owner, said. “They are from New Mexico and we want all teams from New Mexico to do well.”

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Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at https://twitter.com/russcontreras

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