Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.
UNLV vs. New Mexico
No. 23 UNLV Rebels (19-4, 7-2) vs No. 15 New Mexico Lobos (21-3, 7-2)
Where: Thomas & Mack Center
When: 8:00 p.m.
Coaches: Lon Kruger is 131-57 in his six seasons at UNLV and 449-290 in 24 overall seasons; Steve Alford is 77-24 in his three seasons at New Mexico and 375-207 in 19 overall seasons.
Series: UNLV leads 25-14
Last time: UNLV won, 74-62, on Jan. 9 in Albuquerque
Line: UNLV by 5.5
TV/Radio: CBS College Sports/ESPN Radio 1100-AM
G Oscar Bellfield (6-2, 180) 9.4 ppg, 4.7 apg, 2.5 rpg
G Kendall Wallace (6-4, 190) 6.8 ppg, 1.9 rpg
G Tre'Von Willis (6-4, 195) 18.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.2 apg
F Chace Stanback (6-8, 210) 10.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg
F Brice Massamba (6-10, 240) 4.2 ppg, 2.1 rpg
Bench: F Darris Santee (6-8, 225) 4.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg; G Justin Hawkins (6-3, 190) 3.5 ppg; F Matt Shaw (6-8, 240) 7.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg; G Anthony Marshall (6-3, 200) 4.6 ppg, 2.1 rpg; G Steve Jones (6-1, 220) 1.8 ppg.
What to watch: It's a safe bet that New Mexico will tighten up on Kendall Wallace, who slayed the Lobos in January with seven 3-pointers. Who will fill up the points column in his place if he's bottled up?
G Dairese Gary (6-1, 205) 11.5 ppg, 3.8 apg, 2.9 rpg
G Phillip McDonald (6-5, 200) 11.2 ppg, 3.0 rpg
F Darington Hobson (6-7, 205) 15.6 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 4.3 apg
F Roman Martinez (6-6, 185) 13.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg
F A.J. Hardeman (6-8, 225) 7.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg
Bench: G Nate Garth (6-2, 180) 4.9 ppg; G Jamal Fenton (5-9, 170) 4.4 ppg; F Will Brown (6-9, 235) 4.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg; G Curtis Dennis (6-5, 195) 3.2 ppg.
What to watch: Darington Hobson was the best player on the floor early in the second half the first time the two teams met, but then got gassed, came out and UNLV took over. Expect him to be pretty energized as he makes his collegiate return to his hometown.
"Um, a million," he said with a laugh.
The New Mexico junior forward can vividly remember several of them, too.
Hobson recalls going with his dad — a UNLV alum — to watch his favorite players night after night. A specific favorite? He said it was a tie between Marcus Banks, Shawn Marion and Trevor Diggs.
"I was a Rebel fan growing up, and that's where I really fell in love with the game — watching games at the Thomas & Mack," he said.
Now he'll suit up as a visitor in the Mack for the first time in a game that is probably bigger than any he watched from the stands as a kid.
The Vegas native will lead the No. 15 Lobos (22-3 overall, 7-2 MWC) into tonight's 8 p.m. contest against the No. 23 Rebels (19-4, 7-2) in a battle between two of the three teams tied atop the Mountain West Conference standings.
"It's a game that means a lot," Hobson said. "We're both tied in first place. They're a great team; they came in and beat us on our home floor. We're trying to come in and even it up, try to get one on their home floor. That's all I'm really focused on right now. It's not about me coming home and playing in front of family and friends. It's about getting a much-needed, very important win against a very good team."
The Lobos come into Las Vegas with plenty of momentum behind them.
Since falling to the Rebels on their home floor on Jan. 9, 74-62, New Mexico has not lost a game. That stretch includes Saturday's 88-86 overtime escape from San Diego State and a 76-72 victory Jan. 27 over BYU.
Hobson scored 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the first meeting with the Rebels and had been up-and-down in that stretch following the UNLV loss. That afternoon not only ended sour in the form of a defeat for New Mexico, but Hobson, after catching fire early in the second half, got tired and had to catch a breather. In that window, he could do nothing but watch as his good friend, Kendall Wallace, cashed six 3-pointers down the stretch to help the Rebels pull away.
But the league's leading candidate for Newcomer of the Year honors rediscovered his groove just in time for his homecoming affair.
Against SDSU, Hobson had 29 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and three steals. He also came up huge in the overtime period en route to being named the Mountain West's co-Player of the Week along with UNLV's Tre'Von Willis.
At his best, the versatile 6-foot-7 forward is a lot to handle. Averaging 15.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, his inside-outside game has caught the attention of NBA scouts, and he could be facing a stay-or-go decision after just one season in Albuquerque.
Most of that growth took place after leaving Las Vegas following his freshman year at Western High — a year in which he didn't even play for the Warriors.
"I wasn't really into even trying out for the team," he said. "Then I don't think I was eligible, anyway. My grades were kinda down my freshman year. I moved to Houston, got a fresh start, my grades were up, I tried out and did well."
After moving to Houston with his mother, he'd end up at a total of five different schools in five years, including a year at prep school in Illinois.
Then came a two-year stint at College of Eastern Utah.
He's had to constantly apply extra focus on his academic standing to stay on the floor since high school, and he said playing his college ball away from Las Vegas has helped him stay focused on the tasks at hand.
Plus, he had familiarity with Steve Alford, who had heavily recruited Hobson while still at Iowa.
"I thought the best thing for me was just to get away and make sure I'm focused at all times," he said.
While Hobson won't admit that tonight's contest holds extra meaning to him, it will be hard for him not to feel as if he's at home away from home.
He couldn't quantify how many family members and friends he'd have in attendance.
"I'll probably have my own section," he said jokingly.
He has regularly played at the Mack during the summer months for the last four or five years with the UNLV players during open gym sessions, he said. He may know the Rebels better than any individual opponent in the league.
He also knows just how deadly the Rebels could be if they duplicate their performance from Saturday's 88-74 victory over BYU.
Or the second half they played in Albuquerque last month, for that matter.
"They made big-time plays down the stretch and we didn't make any," he said. "They did a good job of coming out and pressuring us. Towards the end or middle of the second half, a different guy each time up the floor stepped up and made plays for them and made big-time shots. That was the big difference-maker. When you've got your whole team doing that, it's hard to beat a team like that."