With four starters returning from a team that won 29 games and swept the Mountain West regular season and tournament titles, New Mexico entered the season confident it could sustain last year's momentum
So far that has proven harder than expected.
A 76-73 home loss to UNLV on Wednesday night highlighted flaws New Mexico must correct if it's going to challenge San Diego State for the Mountain West crown this winter. Not only did the Lobos place too great a burden on their starters because of their lack of bench production, they also again failed to defend at anywhere near the level they did a year ago.
A UNLV team better known for its frontcourt than its guards torched New Mexico's perimeter defense, either getting to the rim with ease off the dribble or generating open jump shots at will. The Rebels shot 50 percent from the field overall and knocked down 7 of 13 threes, with Bryce Dejean-Jones scoring a game-high 23 points and Deville Smith, Kevin Olekaibe and Jelan Kendrick combining for 38 more.
One bad defensive night would be excusable if UNLV was a juggernaut this season, but the underachieving Rebels (11-6, 2-2) are scrambling to recover from bad home losses to Nevada, Air Force and UC Santa Barbara. More importantly, defensive issues have become an unlikely recurring issue for New Mexico.
The 1.08 points per possession the Lobos had allowed entering Wednesday's game were just fifth-best in the Mountain West and well behind last year's pace. The departure of last year's perimeter stopper Tony Snell and fellow standout defender Chad Adams is surely a factor, as may be the transition from defense-oriented Steve Alford to first-year head coach Craig Neal.
New Mexico has been able to overcome mediocre defense more often than not thanks to a potent offense powered by reigning Mountain West player of the year Kendall Williams and standout big men Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk. That trio is averaging 52.5 points per game, more than two-thirds of New Mexico's points this season. They rallied the Lobos back from a 16-point first-half deficit but could never get their team quite over the hump.
What's concerning for the Lobos is how reliant they are on that trio.
Since New Mexico lacks either a reliable backup big man or a proven backup point guard, Bairstow, Kirk and Williams have averaged 35.5, 37 and 37.8 minutes, respectively, in four Mountain West games so far this season. The Lobos bench logged a total of 31 minutes on Wednesday yet attempted only four shots and scored only three points.
For all New Mexico's issues, it's not like the season has been a collapse. The Lobos (12-4, 3-1) boast non-league victories over Cincinnati and Marquette and trail Mountain West-leading San Diego State by just a game.
Still, this was a New Mexico team that began the season with a top 20 ranking and high expectations. Those goals are still attainable, but only if the Lobos recommit defensively and find some bench scoring first.