New Mexico Lobos Basketball – In The Pit – Mountain West Conference
Who/When: 7:15 p.m. (MT, Wednesday) – UNLV (10-6, 1-2) at New Mexico (12-3, 3-0)
On TV: CBS Sports Network (Dish 158, DirecTV 221, Comcast 221)
On The Radio: 770-AM KKOB/Lobo Radio Network; ESPN Deportes (1450-AM, 105.9-FM)
GoLobos.com: Game Story, Statistics, Quotes, Video Interviews
By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com.
“It’s a UNLV team.”
Really, that’s all you have to say because that says it all. You roll those words off the tongue of New Mexico’s Alex Kirk, you roll out a basketball, and then you run for cover.
And enjoy the heavyweight fight.
Kirk is a New Mexico product. He understands the core of passion, heat and electric basketball that comes from Lobos battling Runnin’ Rebels. It is a rivalry tested by time, talent, meaning and maybe a few hard feelings.
When the Rebels step onto the Bob King Floor on Wednesday, the ghosts and legends of past Lobo/Rebel games descend into The Pit’s subconscious. Jerry Tarkanian and Norm Ellenberger will be there. Reggie Theus, Michael Cooper and Marvin Johnson, too.
The fabric of this rivalry has dark and old roots, but each year it is reborn to fresh faces and young legs.
The Lobos of 2014 are vital, passionate and undefeated (3-0) in Mountain West play. The Rebels of Vegas are similar to the Spartans of San Jose State in that these Rebels feel the cold touch of a wall pushing against their backs and their pride.
They are 1-2 in the long climb up the Mountain. They have lost back-to-back league games to Air Force (75-68) and Nevada (74-71).
It gets worse. The Rebels lost those games in the Vegas Thomas & Mack. They are entering a week in which they play at New Mexico and at San Diego State. The Rebels could be tossed into a 1-4 hole.
"We look at the next week as an opportunity to get our momentum back," UNLV Coach Dave Rice said.
Rebels and Lobos really don’t need anything on the line to go at each other tooth and nail. As much as anything, this is a pride game. Lobos are fierce when it comes to battling Runnin’ Rebels. Ditto for UNLV.
But the Vegas Rebs need this win badly. A win in The Pit against the 12-3 Lobos would be a huge step in making up for Thomas & Mack losses. The Lobos need to defend the home turf.
“UNLV overall -- just looking at the raw talent they have -- it’s pretty scary,” said the 7-foot Kirk. “They are coming into The Pit. They’ll get excited. It’s going to be a fight.”
Said Coach Craig Neal: “They are a dangerous team.”
The Rebels also are an extremely athletic team -- kind of like SDS, kind of like Kansas, but with fewer McDonalds All-Americans.
Still, as Kirk says, this is a Vegas team with raw talent that probably will come at least ten strong at the Lobos. UNLV’s 6-foot-5 Bryce Dejean-Jones averages 14.5 points. Roscoe Smith, a 6-8 forward, averages 12.5 points and also brings a scary 12.8 average on the boards. Khem Birch, a fast 6-9 post type, scores at an 11.7 clip and brings down 9.7 boards.
“We’re going to have to rebound because they are going to rebound,” said Neal.
Kirk says Birch is “the fastest center I’ve ever played against.”
Rebel Kevin Olekaibe, a 6-2 guard, averages 10.6 points. The Rebels have four other players who combine to average 24.5 points. UNLV has 6-11 Carlos Lopez-Sosa, who averages only 6.1 minutes a game, but might be used to muscle up with UNM’s Kirk along with 6-10 freshman Reb Christian Wood, who averages 12.5 minutes.
Vegas has some weapons: some athletic, quick, long weapons.
UNLV is 10-6 overall and looks better than that on the court. They have lost five games in Vegas. Distractions?
The UNLV numbers are pretty good. They out rebound (42.9 to 37.3) and out shoot (.449 percent to .396 percent) their enemies. They have 113 blocks on the season which is No. 6 in the national stats. They have outshot their opponents at the line with 408 attempts to 245 attempts. They play good defense against the trey.
Their path to the upset they seek in The Pit probably hinges heavily on valuing possessions, board work and good shot selection. The Lobos will seek the same things and try to take those things away from UNLV.
“Bryce Jones is really, really good,” said Coach Neal. “Khem Birch is probably the best shot blocker along with Alex Kirk in the league and Roscoe Smith is leading the country in rebounding. They have a nice team. It will be a great challenge for us.”
It will be interesting to see how Vegas deals with Kirk and Cameron Bairstow inside. Nevada’s 6-foot-1 Deonte Burton lite up the Vegas’ defense for 29 points last week in that loss to the Wolf Pack. UNM’s Kendall Williams also can destroy a good defense.
Besides having the No. 1 board man in the nation in Smith (12.8), UNLV has the No. 6 shot swatter in Birch, who averages 3.69 per game. UNM’s Kirk is in the No. 26 spot with a 2.87 average per game. The paint presence of these defenders helps both teams put more pressure on the edge knowing the back door has its guardians.
SDSU tops the nation in field goal defense at 35.7 percent, but UNLV (39) and New Mexico (50) are in the Top 50. UNLV is No. 5 in the nation in 3-point defense at 26.7 percent. Against UNLV, you have to run offense, show patience, try to score easy stuff in transition, and score in the paint.
And rebound. And rebound some more.