UNLV's season will be defined by NCAA success

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- His name was Henry V. Porter, and he was writing an essay on the state high school basketball tournament in Illinois. It was 1939.

In the piece, he penned that "a little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel."

I'm not sure how it helps mankind, but there is nothing sane about this month and basketball.

Consider only Dick Vitale.

Porter couldn't have imagined how the term "March Madness" would ultimately be defined, how passionate and often irrational it would make fans across the country, how it would come to stipulate which college programs should be considered successful and which ones failures each year.

UNLV returns to the madness Thursday night, when the Rebels, as a No. 6 seed in the South Region, meet No. 11 Colorado in The Pit. It's the first time since 1991 that UNLV has earned NCAA berths in three consecutive seasons and the first under Dave Rice as coach.

"We won the (Mountain West Conference) regular-season title at Brigham Young three straight years, but lost each time in the first round of the NCAAs," Rice said. "Then, New Mexico won the league title outright, and we finished second but beat Florida in the tournament. The opinion of our fans was that we had a better year than when we won conference.

"It's the proliferation of the NCAA Tournament, where it truly has become the end-all. Getting into it is huge for any program. Ultimately, every team is trying to win a national championship, and the only way to do that is get to the tournament."

Rice better than anyone else understands the importance UNLV fans put on this event, even though there was a stretch of six straight years from 2000 to 2006 when UNLV didn't qualify. It's about the past, mostly, about the dream that what happened before can again, about a time in which he played at UNLV and was part of its greatest basketball moment.

In the minds of many, four Final Four teams and a national championship season in 1989-90 mean the Rebels could one day return to the tournament's final weekend and challenge for its ultimate prize. Perhaps. It's not impossible. Butler and Virginia Commonwealth are doing it nowadays. Parity is a wonderful thing.

But the tournament has grown to such incomprehensible heights in terms of expectations, a program such as UNLV merely can't qualify for the field and appease most who support it.

Lon Kruger did an admirable job steadying what was a ship taking on massive amounts of water, but there was a feeling near the end of his tenure as coach that he had taken UNLV as far as he could in the madness, and it would need guidance of another to annually make deep NCAA runs.

Rice was handed that challenge, and his team this season has managed 26 wins and the highest NCAA seed for a UNLV team in 20 years. The Rebels will be expected to beat Colorado and then, should seeds play out, give No. 3 Baylor everything it wants in altitude on Saturday.

And anything short of that is unacceptable.

"We like our chances," said senior guard Kendall Wallace, one of five Rebels making their third straight trip to the madness. "We got a good seed, and this senior class is determined to leave an impression on the program and go out with a bang.

"We wanted to win conference and then the conference tournament, and fell short on both. But now we have this opportunity. We won't be awestruck or distracted by all the media or anything else that makes the NCAA Tournament such a big deal. We'll be ready and focused on Colorado."

I'm not sure how much bigger the event can get. It's a giant spectacle, one where bracketology experts begin to predict the field in December. The best team certainly doesn't always win, but the real madness takes place now, in the tournament's first week, when those who make it are praised by fans and those who don't are often condemned.

"It's that way, so you deal with it," Rice said. "I think it devalues the regular-season conference title, which is also very important, because it's the mark of a more consistent program to win over the course of a season, more than just a game or two in the NCAA Tournament. But getting here is still our No. 1 goal, and we have a chance to make what has been a special season even better."

Sure thing, but you know what the fan base is thinking.

Just don't lose to Colorado.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday on "Gridlock" on ESPN Radio 1100 AM and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.