ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s not just one that got away. UNLV junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones has had a lot of time to reflect on two games to regret, and he admitted to being in a foul mood because of it.
“You have to wait a week until you play again, and you’re sitting there thinking about the games you just lost,” he said. “It gave me a bad feeling, especially losing two at home.”
And especially when the two beatings were handed out by Air Force and UNR, teams expected to be Mountain West bottom feeders.
The Rebels (10-6, 1-2) are hitting the road with bad intentions and planning to take frustrations out on New Mexico (12-3, 3-0) when the teams get reacquainted at 6:15 p.m. today at The Pit.
It’s the teams’ fourth meeting in just over a year. The Lobos took two of three last season, winning 65-60 in Albuquerque and 63-56 in the conference tournament championship at the Thomas &Mack Center.
But forget last year. Dejean-Jones said it’s time to move past what happened last Wednesday, when the Wolf Pack upset UNLV. With another major test at 10th-ranked San Diego State (14-1, 3-0) looming Saturday, the Rebels need to regroup or get lost in the league shuffle.
“I really don’t like losing. We need to change that on this road stretch,” Dejean-Jones said. “I look at it as a great opportunity to get two good wins.”
Any potential turnaround figures to be sparked by Dejean-Jones, the team’s leading scorer at 14.5 points per game, and junior forward Roscoe Smith, the nation’s top rebounder at 12.8 per game.
Smith stepped into a more prominent leadership role last week by calling out teammates for playing with a lack of passion. But he backpedaled a bit this week by saying the team’s morale has improved after a weekend off.
“I feel like we’re motivated. We’re headed in the right direction,” Smith said. “Every team needs a leader. I try to play as hard as possible every day. I feel like a lot of us are feeling confident going into this game.”
UNLV is an 8½-point underdog, but at least the schedule is working in its favor. The fatigue that junior forward Khem Birch said he was experiencing after the UNR game should not be a factor.
“It was great to have a week off and get our legs back and get rested,” Dejean-Jones said.
If one side might show signs of wear and tear, it’s the Lobos, who are off narrow wins on trips to Wyoming (72-69 in overtime) and San Jose State (69-65).
New Mexico coach Craig Neal is tired of hearing about his team’s lack of blowout victories. Neal was promoted after Steve Alford left for UCLA, and Neal is catching minor criticism because the Lobos are unranked and not appearing as impressive as preseason expectations.
“I think we won a lot, a lot of close games last year, and nobody talked about point differential last year at all, but it seems to be a big issue this year,” Neal said. “I just look at it as wins.
“The best thing for me is we’re 12-3, 3-0, and you don’t want to peak in January. Our guys understand that they have room for improvement.”
No player in the Mountain West has improved more than senior forward Cameron Bairstow, who leads the Lobos in scoring at 20.0 points per game after averaging 9.7 as a junior.
Bairstow and 7-foot junior Alex Kirk form the league’s top front-line duo, if it’s not the Rebels’ Birch and Smith.
UNLV’s top six scorers are transfers, and Kirk made a comment Monday that could fuel a fiery rivalry, even though his words did not seem to be meant as a slight to the Rebels’ players or coaches.
“UNLV overall, just looking at the raw talent they have on the scouting report, it’s pretty scary,” Kirk told the Albuquerque Journal. “They’re not really having the recent success coming into conference, but that’s a hell of an AAU team.”
The perimeter matchup to watch is Dejean-Jones, the leader of the Rebels’ “AAU team,” against Lobos senior Kendall Williams, averaging 18.3 points as arguably the league’s best guard.
In Kirk’s words, “It’s going to be a fight.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.