In big picture, UNLV made progress on tough trip

SAN DIEGO — You’re not in Albuquerque anymore, Toto.

The trip from hell — at least by Mountain West basketball standards this season — taught UNLV some valuable lessons this past week. Most of them good.

It began Wednesday with an impressive win against a New Mexico team that can’t guard air, and ended Saturday against the nation’s 10th-ranked squad that defends every cut and ball screen and post touch as if its collective life depends on not allowing others to score.

That the Rebels lost to San Diego State 63-52 before a customary raucous sold-out Viejas Arena isn’t all that shocking, given the Aztecs might be the best defensive team in the league’s 15-year history and UNLV isn’t going to be confused with any great offensive sides.

The Rebels shot 30 percent and made 2-of-18 3-pointers.

On the road.

That gets you beat.

Every. Single. Time.

How good is San Diego State defensively?

The Aztecs won two home games this past week despite shooting less than 34 percent in each and yet could see their national ranking rise to No. 7 on Monday.

“That’s a terrific team and one deserving of its ranking,” Rebels coach Dave Rice said. “But I told the guys that we have to take something very positive out of this (week). If we give that same energy and effort beginning at home (Wednesday against Utah State), we’ll have a great opportunity to be successful the rest of the way.

“None of us are happy with losing, we will all lose sleep over it, but I can’t fault the effort and energy of our group. We just didn’t make enough plays against a very good team.”

He’s right. In defeating the Lobos and rallying from 17 down to climb within five with 5:48 left Saturday, UNLV offered enough good stretches to make you believe it can compete to win three games in three days come March.

And that’s what it will take for the Rebels to make a fifth straight NCAA Tournament.

It’s a win-the-conference-tournament-or-possibly-prepare-for-the-CBI reality for UNLV.

Five games into a Mountain West schedule, UNLV already trails the first-place Aztecs by three games. The Rebels have one victory over a top-100 team. Uno. They have no NCAA resume. Zilch.

But the team that played so hard and with such purpose in two games this past week isn’t as far from the conference’s best as an 11-7 record suggests.

Take the game Saturday.

San Diego State is long and athletic and physical. So, too, is UNLV in spots. Each team has big men who give opponents fits.

The difference is one great guard. The Aztecs have one in fifth-year senior Xavier Thames. The Rebels don’t.

Thames shot just 3 of 14 but scored a game-high 18 points because he is good enough off the dribble to draw contact and get to the free-throw line. He was 11 of 12 there, and San Diego State shot 27 free throws to 11 for UNLV.

Some of it is because the Aztecs are ranked 10th and this place is deafening and officials are at times influenced by the atmosphere.

A lot of it is because San Diego State is really hard to guard off the dribble.

There is also this: Each team had 18 offensive rebounds, and yet San Diego State scored 19 second-chance points to seven for UNLV. The Aztecs’ size bothers people. It changes countless possessions over 40 minutes.

“They have great respect for our guys, and we do for them,” Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said. “They’re good, and we know it. They had beaten us three straight coming in, so we were determined to protect our home turf. We’re a good defensive team, and when you make it hard for them to get easy shots, you’re going to have a chance.”

In short: UNLV has to look at the two-game trip through a big-picture lens, learning from what it didn’t do well and improving what it did. The Rebels are every bit an 11-7 team, but there are 13 conference games and the league tournament remaining to prove that those good stretches from Wednesday and Saturday are more of what UNLV is about than not.

The Rebels aren’t as good as San Diego State or, in truth, the New Mexico team it beat 76-73.

But they’re not as far off as most believe.

“San Diego State is good,” UNLV forward Roscoe Smith said. “Tall and lengthy, like us. It was a tough environment to play in. I was anxious to get out there after our big win in Albuquerque. We competed with them.

“I know we’ll play well (at home Wednesday). Everyone is battling, understanding their roles. I know we’re going to play very well.”

They need to take what happened on the trip from hell and create success from it.

“It was a great game,” Thames said. “UNLV is a great team. I’m just glad we won.”

UNLV is work in progress, the latter of which was made this past week.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.