Not one to be easily confused, UNLV coach Lon Kruger is trying to make sense of a basketball team best described as perplexing.
The Rebels' season has been a riddle memorable for its highs -- upset wins at Louisville and Brigham Young -- and forgettable for its lows -- embarrassing losses at Colorado State and Wyoming.
"Why is hard to figure out," said Kruger, who knows one thing for certain. "We have to bounce back."
UNLV was picked as the preseason favorite to win the Mountain West Conference mostly because senior leaders Wink Adams, Joe Darger and Rene Rougeau were expected to provide stability.
But the ride has been shaky, to say the least, as the Rebels (19-7, 7-5 MWC) prepare to play BYU (20-5, 8-3) at 8 p.m. today at the Thomas & Mack Center.
UNLV has won 29 of its past 30 home games against conference opponents and has beaten the Cougars five straight time at home.
The importance of the game is obvious for the Rebels as they walk a tightrope between the NCAA Tournament bubble and a National Invitation Tournament berth.
After sleepwalking through a 77-68 loss at Wyoming on Wednesday, UNLV put itself in a precarious position.
Adams is ignoring all the NCAA Tournament talk about bracket projections and computer rankings.
"We can't listen to what people are saying. Nothing is over," he said. "You've got to clear your head and go out and play. We've just got to win games."
The solution to the Rebels' dilemma, Rougeau said, must be a show of strength from the seniors.
"At this point in time, we need a win. As seniors, we've got to do a better job," Rougeau said. "We've got to set that tone. It's got to come from the seniors more than anyone else, so we've just got to take over right now."
On Jan. 21 at Provo, Utah, Adams was the one who seized control when UNLV staged a second-half comeback to beat BYU 76-70, stopping the Cougars' 25-game home winning streak in the conference.
Adams scored a game-high 22 points as the Rebels wiped out a 43-30 halftime deficit.
UNLV has displayed one clear trait by playing to the level of its competition. Except for a brief burst, the Rebels appeared disinterested and uninspired in the loss to the Cowboys.
"It was just a lack of focus and not taking it serious," Rougeau said. "We've got to make sure that doesn't happen anymore, if we're really serious about this.
"As much as we've talked about it, we've got to make sure it happens. Every game has really got to matter to us. We can't have any more letdowns."
Kruger said he thought his players were properly motivated before the Wyoming game, realizing what's on the line. He found out otherwise and was surprised at the team's lack of urgency.
"What we did at Wyoming ... we obviously can't afford to do that at any time, especially this time of year. We've done that on three or four occasions on the year," Kruger said.
"The effort for the most part has been good. It was bad Wednesday. In several games, it was good. Our guys understand how tough this challenge will be because BYU is playing very well."
Since losing to UNLV, the Cougars have won six of seven games behind the talented scoring trio of senior Lee Cummard, junior Jonathan Tavernari and sophomore Jimmer Fredette.
In the first meeting, Cummard was held to 10 points, none in the second half. Tavernari, a Bishop Gorman High graduate, shot 7-for-22 and had 21 points and 13 rebounds.
The Rebels are relying too much on their 3-point shooting, and Kruger said he wants his players to "compete for better shots" and compete at a higher level in general.
"These last four games are definitely crucial to our season," Adams said. "We've got something to prove now."
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at 702-387-2907 or email@example.com.
BRIGHAM YOUNG AT UNLV
• RECORD: BYU 20-5, 8-3 MWC
• COACH: Dave Rose (92-31, fourth season)
• PROBABLE STARTERS:
Player Pos. Ht. Ppg.
Jonathan Tavernari F 6-6 17.1
Chris Miles C 6-11 7.4
Lee Cummard G 6-7 17.0
Jimmer Fredette G 6-2 15.4
Jackson Emery G 6-3 7.9
• RECORD: UNLV 19-7, 7-5 MWC
• COACH: Lon Kruger (110-49, fifth season; 428-282 overall, 23rd season)
• PROBABLE STARTERS:
Player Pos. Ht. Ppg.
Joe Darger F 6-7 9.7
Rene Rougeau G 6-6 10.9
Tre'Von Willis G 6-4 11.8
Wink Adams G 6-0 14.3
Oscar Bellfield G 6-2 6.6