Two of the teams expected to contend for the Mountain West Conference title again this season are set to get together on Wednesday night, as the 24th-ranked UNLV Runnin' Rebels clash with the 25th-ranked New Mexico Lobos in The Pit.
The Lobos have enjoyed a lengthy break in the action, sitting out since New Year's Eve, giving the team plenty of time to reflect on recent happenings, specifically their two losses in the last three outings. The team was stunned by South Dakota State at home on Dec. 22 by a final of 70-65 and responded with an upset win over Cincinnati on the road five days later, 55-54. However, to close out the 2012 calendar year, New Mexico was held to a season-low 46 points in a 14-point loss at Saint Louis.
Nevertheless, at 13-2 the Lobos are one of six teams in the MWC already with double-digit wins and one of four squads with a baker's dozen to their credit.
One of those other programs with 13 victories already as they head into conference play is the Runnin' Rebels. UNLV also closed out the month of December on a sour note as they dropped a 79-73 decision at North Carolina, but the team has already rebounded with a pair of wins by at least 20 points. First, there was the 74-52 pounding of Chicago State at home on Jan. 3, then came an 84-63 thrashing of Cal State Bakersfield over the weekend to give the Runnin' Rebels their 11th win in the last 12 outings.
UNLV owns a 28-17 advantage in the all-time series between the programs, with each team winning at home during the regular season in 2011-12. In the conference tournament played at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, the hosts were upset by UNM in a 72-67 final.
Against the Roadrunners, UNLV shot 50.9 percent from the floor overall and 7- of-13 behind the 3-point line in the first half, all crucial as the team turned the ball over 19 times. Anthony Bennett connected on all but three of his 13 field goal attempts, including 3-of-4 beyond the arc, as he finished with 28 points and 10 rebounds, while Bryce Dejean-Jones and Quintrell Thomas tacked on 12 and 10 points, respectively. Anthony Marshall finished with just eight points, but he was responsible for seven of the team's 23 assists on their 28 baskets. In the absence of Mike Moser, Bennett has become a star in his own right, not just in Sin City or the MWC, but on a national scale as he averages 19.9 points and 9.1 rebounds per outing. A 56.1 percent shooter from the floor overall, Bennett is capable of moving to the perimeter on offense where he's made good on 38.6 percent of his shots. The only other double-digit scorer on the unit at the moment is Katin Reinhardt with 10.2 ppg, and yet this group is still scoring 78.8 ppg.
The first 20 minutes of action for the Lobos against Saint Louis was some of the worst basketball the team has played in a long time. New Mexico shot a dismal 5-of-19 from the field in the period and trailed by a 33-13 margin at the break, so it is understandable that head coach Steve Alford wasn't around to see the final outcome as he was ejected midway through the second half after being hit with a double-technical. Kendall Williams tried to give the visitors a fighting chance with his 15 points and four assists, both of which were team highs, while Alex Kirk chipped in 13 points and eight rebounds, but he was also tagged for five of the unit's 21 turnovers as well. For the third straight game the offense was held below 39 percent shooting, something that had happened only twice in the previous 10 outings for the program. Granted, UNM is not an offensive team by nature, scoring 68.7 ppg, but still there's something to be said about accuracy. Thankfully, Kirk (11.3 ppg) doesn't have that problem as he makes 50.4 percent from the floor, but it is a concern for both Williams (14.9 ppg) and Snell (11.1 ppg).