Eric Draper / Associated Press
Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014 | 2 a.m.
It’s impossible to know exactly how much New Mexico forward Alex Kirk’s comments affected the Rebels the last time these two teams met. What’s more certain is that, whatever the reasons, that was the best 40 minutes UNLV (17-8, 8-4) has played this conference season.
And if the Rebels want to match that intensity, they’re going to have to motivate themselves this time, because Kirk and the Lobos (19-5, 10-2) know better than to offer any bulletin-board material this time around.
Second-place New Mexico comes to the Thomas & Mack Center tonight to face third-place UNLV at 8 p.m. on ESPN2. A Lobos win makes them legitimate contenders with San Diego State for the regular-season title while a Rebels victory keeps alive the possibility of a three-team race down the wire.
This is the eighth time these teams will meet in the Dave Rice era, with New Mexico holding a 4-3 advantage that includes two Mountain West tournament victories. A refresher on the last time they met, on Jan. 15:
Leading into the game, Kirk likened the Rebels to an AAU team, most likely because of their athleticism and talent assembled from all over the country. UNLV junior Bryce Dejean-Jones saw it as an insult and came out as a man possessed, scoring 23 points in a three-point victory that’s the Rebels’ lone top-50 RPI win of the year.
“We took that personal,” Dejean-Jones said. “I took it as: You don’t think we’re good at all. We wanted to show them who we are.”
Whatever Kirk’s intent, he’s not making that mistake again. Since sitting out a couple of games with a foot injury, Kirk can let his game do the talking leading into this one. Over four games since his return, the 7-foot junior is averaging 17.5 points on 60.4 percent shooting, seven rebounds and two blocks.
His re-emergence makes the Lobos once again a major matchup nightmare in the frontcourt, because senior Cameron Bairstow is still putting up league MVP-type numbers. Heading into Tuesday’s league games, Bairstow was leading the Mountain West in points per game (20.3) and field-goal percentage (57) while still being a factor in rebounds (7.2) and blocked shots (1.4).
“A lot of teams have one very proficient big guy, so you can do something about one,” Rice said. “The problem is they have two.”
Then you factor in defending league MVP Kendall Williams and Hugh Greenwood at the guard spots, and it’s easy to remember why the Lobos were picked to win the league in the first place. They’ve won seven of their past eight and have lost only two games since Dec. 18.
One of many quirks in the new 11-team scheduling format is that the Lobos and Aztecs will have both of their meetings in a five-game span. That starts Saturday at the Pit, which means New Mexico could be in at least a tie for first place on Sunday morning.
That plus the extra motivation to avenge last month’s loss to the Rebels should be enough to see a fired-up Lobos team run out in front of what should be the best Mack crowd of the season. UNLV’s road to the top contains considerably more detours, but it’s close enough that Rice has his team up to date with the league standings.
“Once we won the Wyoming game, it was something that we’re aware of,” Rice said. “We understand there are a lot of things that have to go our way.”
Dejean-Jones conceded that this game — two rivals meeting on national TV with conference title implications — feels a little different than most, but he added that the Rebels try to approach every game like it has this much importance. UNLV has won six of seven, but that urgency was notably absent from the 18-point embarrassment at Colorado State two weeks ago.
The matchup will be difficult no matter what, particularly Bairstow against UNLV’s Roscoe Smith or Christian Wood, but if the Rebels play as hard and relentlessly as they did at the Pit, they’ll be in it down the stretch. The challenge is doing that again when there’s not a perceived slight to rally around.
That shouldn’t be an issue, especially considering the stakes, but the most consistent thing about the 2013-14 Rebels is their inconsistency.