The Mountain West was one of the nation’s most entertaining conferences this season. But since their games played on west coast time and, too often, on channels that aren’t easily accesible to the casual observer, quite a few folks got their first glimpse of New Mexico and UNLV on Saturday evening as the Lobos knocked off the Rebels in the MWC title game, 63-56.
And if you did, than you got a perfect sense of just what comprises both teams.
UNLV’s Anthony Bennett looked the part of a top ten pick for the first five minutes, scoring 11 points on 5-6 shooting, hitting a three and throwing down a monster dunk in the process. But in the second half, Bennett was a non-factor as Bryce DeJean-Jones and Katin Reinhardt shot UNLV out of the game on two different occasions, sandwiching the back-to-back threes that Dejean-Jones hit to cut a nine-point lead to three.
That, in a nutshell, is UNLV. Extremely talented with a lack of decision-making prowess. Final Four potential, yet a trendy first round upset-pick.
New Mexico is a different story.
The Lobos can be as frustrating on the defensive end of the floor as any team in the country. They are big, they are long and they are physical. They challenge shots and they bump cuts and they can take over a game without shooting the ball all that well. And while that defense can keep them in a game, New Mexico has enough weapons offensively that it’s impossible to game-plan to stop them all. Kendall Williams, Alex Kirk and, as he showed on Saturday, Tony Snell are all capable of carrying New Mexico for a stretch.
Against the Rebels, Snell scored 10 of his 21 points in a flurry during the second half, when UNM opened up a 56-47 lead on UNLV.
Thanks to Snell, the Lobos closed out their duel-MWC titles. They won the regular season title by two games. They won the league’s tournament title. They are No. 2 in the RPI having played the nation’s third toughest schedule. They have 10 top 50 wins and a 19-5 record against the top 100.
The Lobos may have locked up a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance, and may even sneak their way into a No. 1 seed.
But regardless of where they end up, the one thing that is for certain is that New Mexico is for real.
Don’t be scared to pick them deep into the tournament in March.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.