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Frigid night in Colorado leaves UNLV even colder


FORT COLLINS, Colo.

If you snapped a picture outside, it would have been one of ice. Of snow. Of slush. Of the sort of air that burns your lungs with each inhale. Of the biting cold Robert Frost wrote about so brilliantly.

If you snapped one inside, it would have been one of ineptness, of exposed warts, of glaring weaknesses, of everything UNLV’s basketball team becomes when the execution is shoddy and the effort even worse.

Which is to say forgettable.

Colorado State, loser of three straight, dead-flat average in most every way, mired in the middle of a very ordinary Mountain West, beat the snot out of a Rebels team that played as if trudging up and down the court in snow shoes.

The Rams routed UNLV 75-57 before 3,702 brave souls that made their way through freezing temperatures to Moby Arena, where the home team took its first lead at 6-4 and merely extended from there.

Up 13 at halftime. Up 16 with less than 15 minutes remaining. Up 21 with 3:49 left.

UNLV never made a push, never made a run, never seemed interested enough to try.

“A very, very bad game,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “We didn’t do anything well. It was one game, but it was a bad game. I’m very disappointed with how we played.”

The loss begins with him and extends to his staff and then a group of players that appeared nothing like the one that had won four straight and 12 of 15. There would be no dramatic comebacks this time. It’s a wonder everyone watching remained awake those final 20 minutes.

It’s also proof that while UNLV is talented enough at spots to win its share of games, it lacks the sort of mental toughness truly good teams own. There is a difference between the best teams in this conference and a side such as UNLV.

It’s all above the shoulders.

This was an awful display all the way around. The Rebels are at best mediocre offensively most nights, but to be sliced up defensively and never make any serious adjustments to slow the layup drill Colorado State was running at the rim teetered around embarrassing.

“I would give us an ‘F,’ ” UNLV forward Khem Birch said. “We didn’t come to play at all. We got big-headed. You think because you’ve won four straight and Colorado State is struggling, we thought we would come in here and blow them out. When shots don’t go in, you get frustrated and sometimes you take possessions off on defense. That’s what we did.”

That’s inexcusable.

Birch (15 points, 12 rebounds) and reserve guard Daquan Cook (six points, 2 of 3 on 3 pointers in 20 minutes) are two Rebels who offered positive nights, but this was a game that saw Rice bench his starters for parts of the second half for a lack of effort and energy and any sort of defensive awareness.

“I wanted to make sure I had guys on the floor who played hard,” Rice said. “I wanted to put guys in who would give a consistent effort so we can learn from it and move forward.”

Everyone failed for UNLV in this one. Players who didn’t execute. A coaching staff that didn’t adjust to having Birch and his shot-blocking skills constantly taken away from the basket when guarding a stretch forward in J.J. Avila.

UNLV isn’t a zone team. I get that. But it’s as if the Rebels are scared to death to even show zone for more than a possession, or at least until the first opposing player hits a 3. It couldn’t have been any worse to mix defensive looks, given the Rams shot 7 of 15 on 3s against the horrid defense UNLV played.

Instead, the Rebels continued to get beat off the dribble and allow a team’s best player (Daniel Bejarano) to go for a night like 24 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. They spent 40 minutes being a step late and allowing their best defender to be taken out of most sets and render his top asset (blocking shots) all but irrelevant.

UNLV was as bad out of timeouts as it was during long stretches of play.

It had no flow, no rhythm, no anything.

Who in the world was the scout for this game?

“Of course, we didn’t play well,” Birch said. “When Coach Rice does things like (bench starters), there’s a problem. If he takes you out, there’s a problem.”

Problem was, for one frigid night outside, UNLV was just as cold and depressing inside.

The Rebels are 15-8 overall and 6-4 in conference and a couple of plays from being 4-6.

They looked very much like the middle of this conference Wednesday.

Dead.

Flat.

(Below) Average.

One game.

One very, very bad game.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.comor 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.