In a tough spot, it always helps to have experience to use as a guide. Junior forward Roscoe Smith realizes the predicament — and opportunity — in front of UNLV in the Mountain West tournament.
The Rebels must win three games in three days or face the fact that there will be no NCAA Tournament trip at the end of a failed season.
“Most people say our backs are against the wall,” Smith said. “I’ve been down that road before.”
The postseason road for fourth-seeded UNLV (19-12) begins with a quarterfinal game against fifth-seeded Wyoming (18-13) at 2:30 p.m. today at the Thomas &Mack Center, the epicenter of the conference and its version of Madison Square Garden.
Smith is familiar with both arenas. In 2011, he was a freshman on a Connecticut team seeded ninth in the 16-team Big East tournament in New York. The Huskies won five games in five days and went on to the NCAA championship.
Three years later, after a transfer, a redshirt year and a road to March littered with too many losses, Smith said, “We’re definitely excited, and everybody is focused.”
The Rebels are not looking past their opener against the Cowboys, but it’s obvious what’s at stake. Just in case his players were not completely aware, coach Dave Rice reminded them this week.
“Coach just told us that we have to win out to make the NCAA Tournament, and everyone understands that,” junior forward Khem Birch said.
Birch, voted the top defensive player in the league for the second consecutive year, did not practice Wednesday because of a left hip flexor injury that has bothered him for a week. But Rice said Birch will start today, and UNLV will be back to full strength.
Smith (concussion) and junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones (suspension) have returned to practice and are expected to come off the bench. Rice said each could play his normal minutes, but freshman Chris Wood will start in Smith’s spot with junior Jelan Kendrick starting in place of Dejean-Jones.
“We understand that we haven’t really performed up to our potential,” Dejean-Jones said, “but we have this tournament to make up for that.”
Wyoming has much bigger problems. Junior forward Larry Nance Jr., the team’s leading scorer and rebounder and a first team all-conference pick, went down with a right knee injury on Feb. 18 and was lost for the season.
In Nance’s absence, the Cowboys lost four of their last five games, and guards Josh Adams and Nathan Sobey were forced to carry the offense for a short-handed team.
Nance, a rising NBA prospect, had 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots in a 48-46 loss to the Rebels on Feb. 8 at the Thomas &Mack, the teams’ only regular-season meeting. Nance hobbled for most of the game with a pulled groin, and his 8-foot jumper with two seconds to go bounced off the rim.
Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt typically maps a strategy to lull UNLV into a slow-paced, half-court game. Rice expects the Cowboys to try to burn clock and bury 3-pointers to hang with a far more talented opponent.
“I was very disappointed for Larry,” Rice said. “I always feel for a kid like that who gets hurt. You hate to see something like that. When a good player like Nance goes out, other players step up and fill in the blanks.
“Sobey and Adams have really picked their games up to a higher level, and they are shooting with a lot of confidence. I think they continue to be very efficient on the offensive end.”
The Rebels, who have not won the conference tournament since 2008 or missed the NCAA Tournament since 2009, are aiming to avoid their first three-game losing streak in Rice’s three years.
UNLV has lost seven games at the Thomas &Mack this season and sits 109th in the nation in the Ratings Percentage Index. With a 10-8 league record and nonconference victories over Portland State, Omaha, Tennessee-Martin, Southern Utah, Radford, Sacred Heart, Santa Clara, Mississippi State and Cal State Fullerton, it’s obvious the Rebels are way off the NCAA selection committee’s radar.
Three wins in three days can change that. But to steal an automatic bid, UNLV must get past Wyoming and likely take down top-seeded San Diego State in a semifinal and second-seeded New Mexico in the final.
“I think we’re determined,” Rice said. “It’s been a long season. A lot of good things have happened, and we’ve certainly had our share of adversity. It’s a great opportunity for us.
“That’s what makes March Madness so special. Everyone who plays in a conference tournament has an opportunity to win a certain number of games in a certain number of days and get to the NCAA Tournament. It won’t be an easy task by any stretch, but that opportunity is there for us. I wanted to make sure I reminded the guys of that.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.