It's rare to see people get fired up about a trip to Albuquerque, N.M., which resembles the surface of the moon. But UNLV coach Dave Rice will be leading an enthusiastic traveling party there this week.
The Rebels were handed what amounted to a lucky draw in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday afternoon, essentially getting their best-case scenarios in terms of seeding, location and opponent.
UNLV (26-8) drew a No. 6 seed in the South Region and will open play against No. 11 seed Colorado (23-11) at about 7 p.m. Thursday at The Pit, one of the most storied arenas in college basketball.
"We're very happy where we're going," junior guard Anthony Marshall said. "Just getting in the tournament is a blessing, but to get a seed that high is great. We're excited about it."
The Rebels' players and coaches watched the NCAA selection show at the Thomas & Mack Center, where about 500 fans attended a viewing event. When the draw was announced, a louder-than-usual roar erupted from the crowd.
"When your name gets called on Sunday, it becomes a new season," Rice said. "There certainly have been some setbacks and some disappointments, but we've learned from those experiences.
"We're one of 68 teams that's going to keep playing. Albuquerque would have been our first choice, so we're excited about that, and it's the highest seed that a UNLV team has had in 20 years, so we're excited about that."
Obviously, the word "excited" was thrown around as often as a bounce pass, and the Rebels were definitely revitalized after the emotional downer they experienced two days earlier.
After losing to New Mexico 72-67 in a Mountain West Conference tournament semifinal on Friday, UNLV waited for an at-large invitation to what will be its third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament.
"I can't wait," sophomore forward Mike Moser said. "That's what we've all been waiting to do since Friday night is just get back on the court and be able to play basketball again."
The Rebels are seeking their first NCAA Tournament win since 2008. Last year, they were assigned a No. 8 seed and lost to No. 9 Illinois 73-62 at Tulsa, Okla. In 2010, UNLV also drew a No. 8 seed and lost to Northern Iowa 69-66 at Oklahoma City.
Marshall and Moser said the players were fearful of drawing another No. 8 seed at a long-distance location.
"I was probably thinking kind of negatively about it," Moser said. "I was planning for the worst."
Senior guard Oscar Bellfield was more optimistic.
"Oscar said, 'I think we're going to get a 6 seed,' " Marshall said. "I told him, 'I hope you're right,' and it came through for us, so maybe Oscar should start making predictions more often."
Oddsmakers opened the Rebels as 4½-point favorites, but predicting them to advance is presumptuous considering they have not won a game away from the Thomas & Mack since Jan. 28.
Colorado won four games in four days to take the Pacific-12 Conference tournament title, capped by an upset victory over Arizona on Saturday.
Senior guard Carlon Brown, a transfer from Utah, leads the Buffaloes, who were headed for a lesser postseason tournament until playing their way into the 68-team field with an unlikely run in Los Angeles.
"We feel like we match up pretty well with them," Marshall said. "They are coming off a hot streak, winning the Pac-12 tournament, so they are feeling very confident. We know it's going to be a tough challenge."
Three other teams from the Mountain West got bids, with New Mexico earning the automatic entry by beating San Diego State 68-59 in Saturday's conference championship game at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The Lobos are seeded No. 5 and will face No. 12 Long Beach State at Portland, Ore. The Aztecs were seeded No. 6 opposite North Carolina State at Columbus, Ohio. Colorado State, a No. 11 seed, plays Murray State in Louisville, Ky.
The Rebels wanted to play in Albuquerque because of their familiarity with the arena and the fact it is 570 miles from Las Vegas.
"The big part for us is that our fans are able to come. In terms of proximity, you always hope for a location that's somewhat close," Rice said. "We don't have to go all the way back East, and this gives our fans an opportunity to travel."
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907.