Let the talk begin.
“A season-saving win for UNLV!”
“A game that showed UNM is a step below SDSU!”
“The Lobos lost their edge.”
These are just a few statements that I’ve heard being made on Twitter and even from Coach Noodles (the last statement which is paraphrased) regarding the Lobos/Rebels game. It is human nature, or at least sport fan nature, to make bold statements and overreact after a game that felt as big as this game did. But what can we really infer from what we saw tonight?
Did UNLV prove they are MWC contenders?
That depends on your definition of a contender. With an impressive win tonight UNLV proved they are contenders for a top 4 spot in the MWC. I still think they need to string together some more wins in conference play before we consider them MWC Champion contenders. They are 2-2 and they did lose to Air Force and Nevada at home before beating the Lobos. SDSU, Boise State, and UNM still rank higher on my MWC power rankings than UNLV. On the bright side, Dejean-Jones singled himself out as the leader of this Rebels team. His performance tonight was incredible and could build positive momentum for the entire team moving forward.
Is SDSU the best team in the MWC?
Yes. Right now it is almost impossible to argue against the Aztecs. UNLV will face SDSU on Saturday which will give us a greater understanding of how dominant this SDSU team is. Right now I would say SDSU is the favorite to win the MWC regular season crown. However, I would like to see the Aztecs head-to-head against the Lobos before I concede that they are “a step above” the Lobos as some are saying.
What did this game tell us about the Lobos?
The Lobos have many areas where they need to improve. Perimeter defense and help defense were the 2 most glaring issues during the game tonight. The Rebels made open layups with 5 minutes left in the game. This is inexcusable. A greater problem with this Lobo team is the same problem from last year; reliance on the officials to bail them out of games. The Lobos rely too much on foul calls which has haunted them during postseason play since the beginning of the Alford era.
The Big Picture
UNLV is a team with a depleted roster (compared to last year) that can still contend with a grinding style of basketball. UNLV should be a top 4 MWC team but it is still hard to imagine they will be able to leapfrog SDSU, UNM, and Boise State. They need another big win before I will believe they can be a legitimate MWC champion contender. That could be accomplished this Saturday at SDSU.
SDSU may be a cut above the rest in the MWC. They are ranked 10th in the nation and Xavier Thames is playing great basketball. If the Aztecs defeat the Lobos in impressive fashion it will be enough to convince me they are indeed the best in the MWC. They have already beaten Boise State and now should hand UNLV a loss on Saturday. By the time the Aztecs and Lobos meet on February 22nd we may already see the gap between the teams.
UNM has several problems to address in the coming weeks. As mentioned earlier, defense is a key concern. These problems could in part be due to a young bench which should naturally improve as it gains experience. Having a lot to improve means that there is a higher ceiling this team could reach. The real question is if the Lobos can string together wins while learning and improving. If they can’t, consider them a 2nd or 3rd place MWC regular season team with a shot at winning the MWC Tournament.