New Mexico and UNLV were considered two of the favorites to win the Mountain West Conference when the season began.
Halfway through league play, only one is looking like a contender.Sitting atop the Mountain West standings, the 15th-ranked Lobos look to drop the struggling Runnin' Rebels below .500 in the conference when they meet Saturday night in Las Vegas.New Mexico (20-3, 7-1) and UNLV (17-6, 4-4) opened league play against one another Jan. 9 in a matchup of Top 25 teams. The Lobos set the tone for the conference season, shutting down Rebels star freshman Anthony Bennett in a 65-60 win.Bennett, who averages a league-best 18.3 points and ranks fifth in rebounding at 8.5 per game, finished with 12 points and six boards and went the final 16:48 without scoring."No other team has double-teamed him to the extent that this team did," UNLV coach Dave Rice said after the game.Alex Kirk had a season-high 23 points to go with nine rebounds for the Lobos, whose game plan coming in was to take it at Bennett, coach Steve Alford said.New Mexico enters this one after beating Air Force 81-58 on Wednesday, its third win in a row. All five starters scored in double digits, with Kirk, Cameron Bairstow and Tony Snell each getting 14 as the Lobos racked up their most points since beating Davidson 86-81 in their season opener."We may not be the bully on the block but we are in first place right now and confident," said Kendall Williams, who had 11 points, seven assists, six rebounds and four steals. "We will take on anyone at this point."New Mexico maintained its one-game lead over second-place Colorado State and dropped the Falcons into a third-place tie with San Diego State."When you are trying to win a championship, you are trying to eliminate as many of those teams as possible," Alford told the school's official website.A victory in Las Vegas could be a fatal blow to the Rebels' hopes of finishing in first.UNLV is in fifth place and fading. It had its worst offensive showing of the season in Wednesday's 64-55 loss at Fresno State -- its second straight defeat -- finishing with season lows in scoring and field goal percentage (35.0). It also shot a season-worst 19.0 percent (4 of 21) from 3-point range.Anthony Marshall had 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting, but Bennett was just 5 of 16 for 15 points. The Rebels' other three starters combined for 15 points and shot 6 of 23 (26.1 percent).UNLV now faces the difficult challenge of trying to regroup against a New Mexico team that is allowing an average of 58.5 points over its last four games. The Lobos held the Rebels to 39.0 percent shooting last month.Despite its struggles, UNLV has still reeled off 11 straight home wins, and is 30-1 in regular-season games at the Thomas & Mack Center since the start of last season.The Lobos, however, are probably not intimidated, having gone 8-2 away from campus. They also defeated UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center in last season's conference tournament."For us to have eight wins away from home is terrific," Alford said. "We know that if we're going to win a championship we have to win games away from home."