For the second time this season, UNLV knocked on the door of the Top 10 last week as the No. 11 team in the country.
For the second time this season, that opportunity was squandered.
Following two road losses last week — UNLV’s first back-to-back losses this season — the Rebels (22-6 overall, 6-4 Mountain West) dropped from No. 11 in both polls to No. 21 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and No. 20 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll.
New Mexico, who was unranked entering last week but scored key back-to-back wins on the road at San Diego State then on Saturday at home over UNLV, is now ranked No. 21 in the coaches poll, but No. 18 in the AP poll. More importantly, the Lobos (22-4, 8-2) secured a two-game lead over both UNLV and SDSU atop the Mountain West standings with four games left to play.
San Diego State (20-6, 6-4), without star wing Jamaal Franklin, had a rough weekend with an upset loss at Air Force, and was dropped to No. 24 in the AP poll and No. 25 in the coaches poll.
The Lobos look like all but a lock to take the league’s regular title, and secure the No. 1 seed in the upcoming Mountain West tournament. That is more coveted than ever this year, as it could likely mean New Mexico would avoid facing UNLV or SDSU until Saturday’s title game, should they make it that far.
Also possibly locked up after this weekend is star Lobo big man Drew Gordon following up his preseason Mountain West Player of the Year honors with the postseason nod as wel.
In two games last week, Gordon posted 44 points and 37 rebounds in the season-defining wins. In conference play, he now ranks 10th in the league in scoring (12.6 ppg), and leads the MWC in rebounding (11.4 rpg). He’s also second in field goal percentage (51.9). Plus, if the Lobos are able to secure the league’s regular season title out-right, the award should go to its driving force.
The two other top contenders — UNLV’s Mike Moser and SDSU’s Jamaal Franklin — are losing some steam.
Moser is second in both scoring (15.7 ppg) and rebounding (10.9 rpg), but having better numbers than Gordon might only go so far. In their second meeting, with first place in the league on the line, Gordon erupted while Moser had just eight points and four rebounds in 30 minutes.
As for Franklin, he’s the league’s leading scorer (17.4 ppg) and third-leading rebounder (9.2 rpg), while also tied for the lead in free throw percentage (88.2). But his late-season ankle injury might work against him. The Aztecs have now lost three straight and are in a bit of a funk at the wrong time.
To boot, the three of them have no remaining head-to-head matchups.
In other words, there might not be much suspense left in the Mountain West until the league tournament rolls around in a couple of weeks.