Well, so much for easing into the Mountain West Conference schedule, huh?
Just three games into a 14-game league jaunt, and 14th-ranked UNLV already faces a tough scenario: Lose on Saturday, and potentially fall two games out of first place in the league race.
That adds up to form what should be an epic clash on Saturday night at 7:15 p.m. at the Thomas & Mack Center between UNLV (17-3 overall, 1-1 MWC) and New Mexico (15-3, 1-1).
San Diego State and Colorado State are both atop the league race early on at 2-0, and Saturday’s game at the Mack should have a hint of desperation in the air, as whoever falls behind has less time to make up ground than they have in the past, when the league played a 16-game schedule.
Here’s a closer look at what to watch when UNLV and UNM tangle in the first of two highly-anticipated regular season meetings.
1) Which Stanback shows up?
As he’s done during his entire UNLV career, senior forward Chace Stanback ate TCU alive on the offensive end Wednesday night, scoring 21 points, including a 5-of-7 showing from 3-point range. In five career games against the Horned Frogs, he’s 37-of-57 (64.9 percent) from the floor and 15-of-23 (65.2) from deep.
In big games, he’s been a bit of a mixed bag. Stanback came up huge against North Carolina in this season’s signature win, playing arguably the best all-around game of his UNLV career. Against Illinois and San Diego State? He had trouble getting anything going.
The Rebels will need the good Stanback to show up Saturday, as his outside shooting has triggered major runs at home this season.
If you’re looking for a trend here, in last year’s game against the Lobos at the Mack, he had 20 points and nine rebounds in a 63-62 win.
2) On the other side, it’s up to Tony Snell.
New Mexico’s leading scorer is 6-foot-7 sophomore guard Tony Snell, who UNLV is very familiar with already.
After a slow start to his freshman season, Snell hit two huge 3-pointers against the Rebels last year in the Lobos’ loss in Las Vegas. That game turned out to be his offensive coming-out party. This season, he’s continued that upward trend, averaging 12.8 points per game while shooting better than 42 percent from 3-point range.
Now, he’s coming off of his worst offensive night of the season, scoring only three points off of 1-of-6 shooting. All of those attempts came from 3-point range.
San Diego State did nothing special in order to take away his 3-point looks or give him extra attention. Snell simply had an off night. UNLV can’t take those same chances, though, as great shooters rarely stay cold for too long.
Given the Rebels’ difficulties taking away open 3-point looks this season consistently, that will be a major area of defensive focus in this game, as New Mexico averages almost 20 3-point attempts per game and, as a team, shoots 40.3 percent from deep.
3) Familiar faces
An interesting storyline in this game is the relationship between two key reserves on both sides: UNLV’s Justin Hawkins and New Mexico’s Demetrius Walker.
The two were long-time AAU teammates whose college careers have taken different paths.
Walker, a highly-touted recruit out of high school, originally ended up at Arizona State before transferring to New Mexico after only one season. He finally seems to have found a home, averaging 7.3 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 17.7 minutes per game off of the bench.
Hawkins has emerged as one of the country’s most dangerous sixth men, averaging 9.5 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists per contest, moving up UNLV’s depth chart in old school fashion.
The journey each player took through the AAU and high school ranks was well-documented in George Dohrmann’s fantastic book released in 2010—Play Their Hearts Out.
For anyone who read it, that adds a nice level of intrigue to this game, but in reality, whoever provides a bigger spark off of the bench likely gives his team an edge.
4) Neutralizing Gordon
He has been dominant at times, and when he is dominant, he’s very dominant.
He is Drew Gordon, New Mexico’s hulking senior power forward and the Mountain West’s preseason Player of the Year.
Against San Diego State, he was relatively ineffective for much of the night, but finished with a decent-looking stat line, with 15 points and eight rebounds.
He has a tendency to do that on nights where he’s neutralized some. That’s what UNLV needs to do to him on Saturday—Keep him from dominating, even if he gets his normal numbers.
That makes Mike Moser very important. Not only were Moser and Gordon teammates at UNLV for half of a season two years back, but Moser as as good as anyone in the Mountain West at taking away an opposing threat on the defensive glass, while also getting under their skin and messing with them mentally. Look for Moser to be a busy man early and often.
5) The X-factors
For New Mexico, it’s sophomore guard Kendall Williams, who was a preseason All-Mountain West selection after emerging late as a freshman last season. His numbers have remained almost identical to what he put up last year, but he hasn’t been able to successfully fill the shoes emotionally of the graduated Dairese Gary, who was one of the most effective leaders the Mountain West has ever seen. For New Mexico to succeed in an environment like Saturday’s in what is almost a must-win spot, Williams must deliver both physically and mentally.
On the UNLV side, it’s reserve big man Quintrell Thomas. In an extended run against TCU off of the bench, he had nine points and four rebounds, showing good intensity on the glass all night. He’ll need to provide that against New Mexico, as all of the Rebels’ big men need to show up against the Lobos’ deep front line. He also has a good reason to be confident, having the game of his life (19 points, 13 rebounds) in last year’s dramatic overtime victory in Albuquerque.