New Mexico (20-3, 7-1 Mountain West) is currently ranked No. 1 atop the Mountain West Conference, but with a loss to the ever-dangerous UNLV Rebels, theirs no telling how the rest of the season will shape out.
When the season began, UNLV and New Mexico had similar fortunes; both were favored to win the difficult alignment that is the Mountain West. As it stands now, the Rebels are struggling to stay above .500 in conference play, while New Mexico is considered a national threat for NCAA programs coast to coast. The Lobos are clearly the most well-rounded team in the Mountain West, and their No. 15 national ranking endorses that claim.
The Lobos and Rebels met earlier in conference play on Jan. 9, and UNLV was considered the favorite over New Mexico. The Rebels left Albuquerque with a 65-60 loss, but have proven to be the only team that can truly contend with New Mexico in the Mountain West. Freshman Anthony Bennett — the Mountain West leading scorer with 18.5 points per game — struggled for UNLV in the two teams first meeting. If Bennett can fight through the multitude of double teams he will receive from the New Mexico defense, the Rebels will have no problem earning another conference victory.
Bennett is the type of player that can completely dominate a game at both ends of play. At 6-foot 8-inches, its a pipe dream to stop Bennett in the post, and no one is out rebounding the forward on the defensive end. He averages over eight rebounds a game, leading the Rebels.
The key for New Mexico starts with an 8-2 road record that politely precedes them. No one in the Mountain West plays better than the Lobos away from campus, and sophomore center Alex Kirk will have a lot to do with that Saturday. Kirk, standing at 7-feet tall, is critical in boxing out UNLV’s Bennett.
If UNLV snags a home victory against the Mountain West’s top dog, Colorado State would move within .5 game of the Lobos, making the landscape of the conference far more interesting for the rest of the season.