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New Mexico vs. UNLV Preview

Lobos look to avenge home-loss against UNLV

Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

The Lobos (19-5) travel to Sin City to play a game against the UNLV Rebels (17-8) that could either preserve or plunder UNM's hopes of another MW regular season title. The game tips of at 9:05 MT on Wednesday night and will be aired on ESPN2 (DirecTV 209, Comcast 253, DISH 144).

The Lobos are one game behind SDSU with a 10-2 conference record. UNLV is sitting in 3rd place with a 8-4 record. The Lobos really can't afford to drop to 10-3 if they expect to keep up with SDSU, especially considering that UNM hosts SDSU this weekend.

Besides the conference race, the Lobos will have revenge on their minds. UNLV handed UNM their first conference loss in The Pit (not an easy feat). In that game the Rebels were the aggressor, jumping out to a 28-12 lead in the first ten minutes. The Lobos were able to work their way back into the game, but fell short at the end, losing 76-73.

Both teams are coming off of impressive games. UNLV shot a blistering 69 percent in the second half against Utah State. New Mexico put up 48 points in the first half against Nevada and scored 90 overall.

There is a lot on the line for both teams. If UNLV still hopes to make the NCAA Tournament, the Rebels need to finish the MW race with a few signature wins and make some noise in the MW tournament. Also, if the Lobos lost both games this weekend, the Rebels would have a fighting chance at snagging second place in the MW regular title.

Meanwhile, UNM knows it is playing second fiddle to SDSU in the Mountain West and that's okay. The Lobos should be content to scout the leader and strike when it will hurt most: Saturday night in The Pit. But first New Mexico has to vanquish UNLV or that game against SDSU loses its significance and dashes any hopes that UNM had to nab their third consecutive regular season title.

And let's not forget, this is UNM vs. UNLV. These two teams have a history and tend to play each other very physically. Kendall Williams knows that as this is his fourth year playing against UNLV. "They are going to need their best game because we are coming out to Vegas for business and we are coming out to take what they took from us," Williams said.

In the teams' last game, Bryce Dejean-Jones led the way offensively for UNLV, scoring 23 points, including 11-of-13 from the foul line. Kevin Olekaibe had 14 points and went 4 of 5 from 3-point range. Cameron Bairstow led the Lobos with 27 points and six rebounds, but had to sit out with foul trouble at pivotal moments in the game.

The Lobos would like to play the aggressor this time around. "We have to come out with intensity and play harder and hopefully we'll play better," said UNM coach Craig Neal.

Besides Dejean-Jones and Olekaibe, UNLV has two other players averaging double-digit points: Khem Birch (11.4) and Roscoe Smith (11.2). Thanks in large part to Smith and Birch, UNLV leads the MWC in defensive rebounding and is 2nd in offensive rebounding (UNM is 2nd and 6th). Smith is the leading rebounder in the league with an 11.3 averages and Birch is 4th with 9.4. Birch is also good for 3.8 blocks per game.

However, UNM possesses the MWC's leading scorer in Bairstow, who averages 20.3 points per game. Williams is not far behind with 17.2 points and 5.0 assists per game. 7-foot Alex Kirk adds another 14.6 points and leads the Lobos with 8.5 rebounds per game. Hugh Greenwood contributes across the board with 6.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game. With Greenwood and Williams at the helm, UNM has managed to be very conservative with possessions as they lead the MW in assist to turnover ratio (UNLV is 5th).

Kirk was able to match Birch in rebounds in The Pit with 11. He will need to do the same or better in Vegas. It would also be nice if Kirk matched Birch in blocks. And fellow big man Bairstow will have to stay out of foul trouble. When he came off the court last time against UNLV the Lobos struggled mightily. I expect UNLV to target Bairstow by taking the ball to the rack early and often.

The Lobos will need to spread the floor. That means that Williams is going to need help scoring outside the paint. Cullen Neal, Deshawn Delaney or Cleveland Thomas will have to find their stroke for this to happen. That's not to discount the possibility that Greenwood goes off, but Greenwood has been quiet scoring wise as of late. I expect that Cullen Neal might be the one to help the Lobos Wednesday night. Neal plays with a lot of confidence (sometimes bravado), and he missed the game-tying three against UNLV last game, so he may be looking for a little redemption with the rest of the Lobo team.

Let's see if the Lobos can balance the series and keep within breadth of SDSU.