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All-time bad Mountain West affords UNLV the opportunity to rise

Updated January 2, 2019 - 11:40 pm

The calendar flips this time each year and college basketball welcomes conference play, when even teams that endured some forgettable results the previous month can hold onto the idea that failure is simply the opportunity to begin anew.

For the love of mighty Bucknell, that includes UNLV.

The Rebels on Wednesday night began their quest to embrace that second-chance nature by surviving Colorado State 78-76 before a mostly subdued announced crowd of 7,881 at Thomas & Mack Center, needing a goaltending call in the final seconds to avoid losing to a team that can’t guard you.

Whoever you are, which really doesn’t matter, because the Rams can’t guard anyone.

But you don’t as a UNLV side that entered Mountain West play 6-6 and coming off a 25-point loss to the not-so-outstanding Patriot League side that is the Bucknell Bison argue with any favorable result.

“We’re 1-0 in conference and we’ll take it,” Rebels coach Marvin Menzies said. “It might not have been pretty, but it doesn’t have to be in conference. You just have to be you gritty and tough, and I thought we showed that.

“We need to have great energy and passion every single night. As long as we do that, we’ll be OK.”

Fact: You should probably get used to these sorts of games, as difficult as they are to watch sometimes.

Why?

The conference is as bad in basketball as any point in its 20-year history, meaning a lot of flawed teams will undoubtedly deliver several surprising scores. There was almost one here Wednesday, as Colorado State, a 9½- point underdog, outplayed the Rebels for most of 40 minutes.

Take away UNR — which you have to believe is just giddy about how this league is about to damage its power rating — and the Mountain West right now is the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

And, this just in, the SWAC stinks.

Some numbers to consider: The Mountain West is currently ranked as the nation’s 11th best league in Kenpom, the conference’s worst standing since Pomeroy began releasing his metrics in 2001-02.

If you use the old Ratings Percentage Index — being replaced by the NCAA Tournament selection committee with its own NET rankings — the conference ranks 15th, which would also be its lowest ever.

Six conference teams are currently rated 150 or worse, including UNLV.

In each of the last two seasons, the league only had three.

It would be too kind to compare the Mountain West to, say, the Ivy League, because the really smart kids shooting jumpers rank 12th in Kenpom.

And, well, Brown led at San Diego State by 30 last week before beating the team picked second in the Mountain West by 22, while Penn won at New Mexico.

Speaking of preseason predictions: The teams picked second (San Diego State), third (New Mexico) and fourth (Boise State) in the Mountain West finished a combined 16-19 against nonconference Division I teams.

This is a conference that as recently as 2012-13, sent five teams to the NCAAs, had nine in Kenpom’s Top 100 and was rated the country’s fourth best league, ahead of the Pac-12 and Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference.

And now … this season.

Wyoming up next

It all means there is opportunity for UNLV to finish higher than its preseason placement of sixth in a media poll, and the chance to go 2-0 in league absolutely exists when feeble Wyoming visits Saturday.

Colorado State isn’t any good. It’s ranked 252 overall in Kenpom and 321 in defense, mostly because it’s one of the nation’s worst sides at forcing turnovers (339) and blocking shots (336).

Even for UNLV, this would have been a really bad loss.

But it prevailed, despite shooting 34 percent and missing 18-of-28 layups and allowing Rams center Nico Carvacho (28 points, 20 rebounds) to have his way the first 33 or so minutes.

“You always want to take a moment of adversity and handle it the right way,” said Menzies. “We have 17 more (conference games) to go. We’ll take them one at a time, but this teaches young men that it’s never over until it’s over.”

In the Mountain West this season, such should be a leading mantra.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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