Restoring pride top concern for UNLV


A popular saying: There is no education like adversity.

Or, in the case of UNLV’s basketball team, like losing to a team with a 160 Ratings Percentage Index twice in a season.

Yep. The Rebels hope falling a second time to mighty Fresno State will help them regain some sense of focus.

Or, well, pride.

But if how it has responded to losses this season is any indication to how UNLV will open Mountain West tournament play today, Dave Rice’s team has every chance of advancing.

The Rebels have followed a defeat with another just once, and that came at Fresno State, understandable when you consider UNLV matched up with the Bulldogs worse than those 300 armed soldiers did with John Matrix.

“The only thing we can do is bounce back and get ready for a very, very difficult game,” Rice said. “It will be a challenge for us.”

In every conceivable way.

UNLV begins its quest for an automatic bid into an NCAA Tournament it will make regardless of this week’s results when it meets Air Force at noon at the Thomas & Mack Center, where a large portion of any home-court advantage the Rebels own should be erased by time of day and setting.

It’s an annual truth that the event’s opening game produces the least amount of atmosphere, a fact that will be tested by UNLV taking part and hoping its fans have enough understanding bosses to look the other way when work stations empty.

The conference has installed its own floor for the tournament. The rims will be different from those UNLV shot on all season. The seating for media and officials again paints the arena in a far different appearance than regular-season games.

And there is this: Air Force will be a tough out.

The Falcons lost here in overtime in January on a night you would be hard-pressed to find anyone with unbiased eyes who didn’t believe UNLV benefited from a (very) favorable whistle; Air Force then thumped the Rebels 71-56 in Colorado Springs, Colo., a month later.

As the joke goes, if you want to see the league’s best running team today, show up and watch ... Air Force.

Thing is, it’s not much of a joke.

I know those out at UNLV like to be funny with marketing slogans about the basketball team running and all, but you can watch just so many games in the 60s and not fall over from laughter at the insinuation the Rebels are an up-tempo side.

Air Force isn’t going to be confused with Indiana for creating offense, but the Falcons start four seniors and are far more aggressive on that end than years past.

You don’t score 89 against New Mexico and 86 against Colorado State and not own an ability to put up points when needed.

“We’re excited to play,” Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said. “We’re not worried about the environment or the venue. We have to play UNLV (in Las Vegas), but you know what? When the game is over, we just have to be the one who played better.”

Rice said a few times last week that any of nine conference teams could win the tournament, but that must have been him working on one-liners for the marketing department. I will suggest that any of five could and not include Fresno State, given it can’t play UNLV all three games.

Here are the five, listed in order of best-chance-to-lift-a-trophy-come-Saturday.

■ New Mexico: I am making the Lobos a favorite to hopefully create some good karma for my ultimate goal, which is to see Steve Alford wear a net around his neck three times in the same year. I am a simple man who doesn’t ask for much, and texting pictures of the New Mexico coach wearing a net has added at least two years of joy to my life.

■ UNLV: Should the Rebels win today, I like their chances of claiming a title, unless they make eye contact with Fresno State senior Kevin Foster while walking off the court and injure themselves by fainting from fear.

■ Colorado State: If the Rams can fight the notion of going under every ball screen set here this week and Larry Eustachy doesn’t lose his mind, their experience could win out. I’m sort of hoping, though, Eustachy loses his mind on a call or two.

■ San Diego State: No one does the Mountain West tournament better than Steve Fisher, whose program has won the most — four — titles of any school. It would help the Aztecs, of course, to make consecutive shots every month or so.

■ Boise State: When you shoot like the Broncos, you always have a chance. The hard part would be shooting like the Broncos for three games in four days ... even for the Broncos.

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.