ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — One month into a mysterious Mountain West Conference season, New Mexico coach Steve Alford insists not much has changed.
Five teams are capable of winning the league, and the team picked to win in October remains in the title hunt.
“UNLV was the favorite before the season, and I still think UNLV is the favorite now,” Alford said.
Professional oddsmakers might disagree, because the standings at conference play’s midpoint paint a different picture.
The Rebels (17-5, 5-3 MWC) and Lobos (14-9, 5-3) are one game behind the pace as they meet at 5 p.m. today at The Pit. The loser will be a long shot to wind up in the penthouse.
San Diego State and Utah share the league lead at 6-2. Brigham Young is in the group with three losses.
“There’s great balance in this league,” Alford said. “On any given night, anybody can win, and on any given night, anybody can lose. We’re right in the middle of it.
“All the coaches talked before the season, and we thought this was going to be the most competitive and most talented the league has ever been top to bottom. All these teams are just separated by a possession or two.”
That statement held true when UNLV beat New Mexico 60-58 on Jan. 3 at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Lobos’ Chad Toppert missed an open 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“There’s eight games left in the league,” Alford said. “I wouldn’t think any of us are out of it because we’re one game back. There could be multiple league champs.”
Rebels coach Lon Kruger said his team probably needs to win three of four remaining road games to get a title shot. That’s not an unrealistic goal, considering UNLV is 6-2 on the road with wins at Brigham Young and Louisville.
“We need to go out and play hard on the road,” Rebels senior Rene Rougeau said. “We have to play this as if it’s our championship game. That’s just more motivation for us. We’re definitely excited about it.”
But New Mexico is definitely no rest stop for weary travelers.
The Lobos are 4-0 at home against conference opponents, winning by a margin of 22.8 points per game.
“We talk about defending the home court,” Alford said. “The Pit is a difficult place to play, and we have played very well here. We’re a much better team at home, but that’s true with most teams in college basketball.”
Toppert made five 3-pointers and scored 17 points to lead New Mexico to an 86-57 victory over Wyoming on Tuesday, the same night UNLV was upset on its home floor by San Diego State.
When the Rebels beat the Lobos a month ago, UNLV senior guard Wink Adams was returning from an abdominal injury and went scoreless in 18 minutes off the bench.
“If there’s anything that’s changed, Wink is more healthy. He is playing at a high level,” Alford said.
Adams has averaged 16.5 points in the past six games, and his play could be the key to the team’s fate.
In the Rebels’ visit to The Pit last March, Adams scored 12 points before fouling out in UNLV’s ugly 59-45 loss.
“We’ve got to come out and play physical,” Adams said, “and at the same time we’ve got to hit shots and get defensive stops.”
• NOTES — The Rebels are 5-1 in their past six meetings with the Lobos. … UNLV assistant coach Lew Hill was released from Sunrise Hospital on Friday. Hill had chest discomfort and was hospitalized after Tuesday’s game.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907.
UNLV AT NEW MEXICO
RECORD: UNLV 17-5, 5-3 MWC
COACH: Lon Kruger (108-47, fifth season; 426-280 overall, 23rd season)
• PROBABLE STARTERS:
Player Pos. Ht. Ppg.
Joe Darger F 6-7 9.5
Darris Santee F 6-8 6.8
Rene Rougeau G 6-6 10.5
Wink Adams G 6-0 13.9
Tre’Von Willis G 6-4 11.0
RECORD: NEW MEXICO 14-9, 5-3 MWC
COACH: Steve Alford (38-18, second season; 346-201 overall, 18th season)
• PROBABLE STARTERS:
Player Pos. Ht. Ppg.
Roman Martinez F 6-6 10.6
Daniel Faris F 6-9 11.8
Tony Danridge G 6-5 13.1
Phillip McDonald G 6-5 8.5
Dairese Gary G 6-1 7.1GAME DAY
UNLV VS. NEW MEXICO
WHEN: 5 p.m. today
WHERE: The Pit, Albuquerque, N.M.
TV/RADIO: CBS-C (333); KWWN-AM (1100)
LINE: New Mexico -4; total 134