If coach Dave Rice’s enthusiasm is contagious, and his players catch his big-game fever, UNLV should be primed to put on an entertaining late-night show tonight.
Rice was getting unusually hyped while talking about the Mountain West tournament semifinals, which feature the top four seeds under the bright lights in the Thomas & Mack Center.
“It’s an electric atmosphere, and we’re excited to be a part of it,” he said. “It’s the best day of the tournament by far in terms of the atmosphere. It’s a cool deal on that Friday night.”
The third-seeded Rebels (24-8) square off with No. 2 Colorado State (25-7) at 8:30 p.m., following a showdown between top-seeded New Mexico (27-5) and No. 4 San Diego State (22-9) at 6.
Each of the conference’s final four teams was ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 this season, and the Lobos are still there at No. 15. All four teams will be in the NCAA Tournament field of 68 next week. Tonight’s session is expected to be a sellout, and the Mountain West has credentialed 44 NBA scouts.
The most impressive offensive player in Wednesday’s quarterfinals, UNLV freshman forward Anthony Bennett, is projected to be a top-10 pick in the NBA Draft in June.
All that might be missing is Dorian Green. The Rams’ senior point guard is being called a game-time decision, but he’s not expected to play because of a sprained right ankle. Green had started all 127 games in his career before sitting out Colorado State’s 67-61 victory over Fresno State in the quarterfinals.
“We’re preparing for what they run, and they run the same things with him or without him,” Rice said. “But we’re preparing for him to play.”
Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy said Wednesday there was a “99.9 percent chance” Green would miss tonight’s game.
“This tournament is extremely important, but obviously the NCAA Tournament is what we’ve worked for all year,” Eustachy said. “If there’s any doubt at all, he won’t play. We’ll be without Dorian. We’re going to practice and prepare as if we don’t have him.”
The Rams typically start five seniors, but sophomore Jon Octeus started in Green’s place Wednesday. Octeus performed well, recording nine points, three assists and no turnovers in 40 minutes.
The prospect of going into a semifinal game without their floor leader is doing nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of Colorado State’s players.
“I want big games,” sophomore guard Daniel Bejarano said. “We’re not going to back down. We can take on any challenge.”
Senior guard Wes Eikmeier contributed to the fight hype, saying, “It’s going to be a bloodbath, 12 rounds all the way down to the end again. These are the kind of things that we look forward to, another opportunity to win on someone else’s floor. So we’re going to bring it.”
The Rams and Rebels split their regular-season meetings, each winning a down-to-the-wire thriller at home. Unlike the coaches in tonight’s first semifinal, the Aztecs’ Steve Fisher and the Lobos’ Steve Alford, Eustachy has no complaints with playing another high-stakes game in Las Vegas in UNLV’s home arena.
“I love the fact that the tournament’s here. I know there’s other coaches that would like it somewhere else. But it’s all about money. Obviously, this generates the most,” Eustachy said. “But the pressure is on Coach Rice.
“I mean, it’s not a fun situation to be in as a coach. It just puts the pressure on the home team.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.