The University of New Mexico Lobos (12-3) welcome the UNLV Rebels (10-6) to the Pit Wednesday night for their first conference duel. Tip off is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. MT.
The Lobos are 3-0 in conference play, earning two road-wins against Wyoming and San Jose State. The Rebels are 1-2, with both losses occurring at home against Air Force and rising star, Nevada.
This game represents a huge opportunity for both teams. Neither team has completely fulfilled preseason expectations. New Mexico was picked to win the conference and UNLV was notched second. But if the Lobos have had a few stumbles, and they have (NMSU loss at home), UNLV has almost collapsed. To give you perspective, the NCAA RPI currently ranks New Mexico 21st and UNLV 145th (new conference favorite, SDSU, is ranked 14th).
A New Mexico win would allow the Lobos to remain undefeated along with Nevada and San Diego State and remind the conference of the perils of the Pit. A UNLV win, especially in the Pit, would right the ship to restore faith amongst fans and players in what has been a lemon of a season.
UNLV will have to contend with New Mexico's now eponymous "big three" of Cameron Bairstow (20.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Kendall Williams (18.3 ppg, 5.2 apg), and Alex Kirk (14.6 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 2.9 bpg). New Mexico is also seeing promising development from Deshawn Delaney and Cleveland Thomas.
Delaney hit three three-pointers and scored 12 points against San Jose State. Thomas also scored 12 points against Wyoming, including four clutch free throws in overtime. Hugh Greenwood's wrist appears to be completely healed as he has hit five three-pointers in the last three games. Cullen Neal has been relatively quiet lately, but he has the ability to put up a lot of points in any game (see Marquette and Grand Canyon).
The Lobos are the 21st best rebounding team in the country with 40.4 per game, but UNLV is 8th best with 42.9. That is thanks in large part to the nation's leading rebounder, 6-8 Roscoe Smith, who averages an astounding 12.8 rebounds per game to go along with 12.5 points. 6-9 Khem Birch adds another 11.7 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. Bryce Dejean-Jones leads the Rebels in scoring with 14.5 points per game. Senior guard Kevin Olekiabe averages 10.6 points while hitting 2.4 three-pointers per game. So the Lobos are going to want to jump out when he catches the ball behind the arc.
On paper it looks like New Mexico should win this one. But it's going to be a challenge. UNVL has immense potential if all of their stars perform. Chemistry has been a problem, but molecules usually have a way of bonding over time. For the Lobo's sake, let's hope it's not Wednesday night.
New Mexico's post players are going to be tested. Bairstow and Kirk have to box out and make baskets. UNM is also going to need support players to score, something they have been doing lately. Let's see if the Lobos can keep pace with Nevada and SDSU and remain undefeated in conference play.