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Despite five-game winning streak, UNLV’s NCAA resume still thin

The fifth straight win was as impressive as the previous four, which is to say UNLV’s basketball team has found a consistent rhythm in beating opponents it should.

Teams the Rebels are better than.

Teams that don’t own UNLV’s talent.

Teams that just aren’t very good.

It’s a streak that, if nothing else, should build confidence in a UNLV team still searching for an identity and whose opportunity for an NCAA Tournament berth will depend solely on how it performs from Jan. 1 to the second week of March.

But never underestimate the importance of self-assurance in sports. Sometimes, thinking you’re better than you are is all a team needs to rise above its true worth in big games.

Any week now, the Rebels will have another one.

UNLV is your Las Vegas Classic champions, the result of an 82-66 whipping of Mississippi State on Monday evening at Orleans Arena.

It allows UNLV to reach Christmas with an 8-4 record and only a home date (win) against Cal State Fullerton on Saturday remaining in the non-conference schedule.

The reality: UNLV will arrive to its Mountain West opener at Fresno State on New Year’s Day with no NCAA resume. Zero. Zip. Nada. Not one result that would cause a selection committee member to give the Rebels a second look, or even a first one.

The Rebels haven’t beaten anyone.

They entered Monday’s game with a Rating Percentage Index of 125, a schedule strength of 128 and their best win coming against Nebraska-Omaha. The Rebels are 6-0 against teams 200 or worse in the RPI, not something you ever include in the holiday letter to family and friends.

Mississippi State has an RPI of 134 with its best win coming against Jackson State. The Bulldogs are another missed jumper away from awful.

UNLV owned opportunities for nonleague resume wins against Arizona State, Illinois and Arizona, but went 0-for-3.

The good news: They’re in the same position as most Mountain West teams.

The conference that spent parts of last season ranked No. 1 in RPI is now 10th and owning few quality nonleague wins.

In fact, the three best RPI victories to date are Utah State sweeping UC Santa Barbara and San Diego State beating Creighton.

Boise State owns the league’s best RPI at 25, followed by New Mexico (34), San Diego State (46) and Utah State (68).

The definition of below average?

The league is 0-14 against the Top 25 in RPI, 3-20 against the Top 50 and 10-29 against the Top 100.

Translation: It’s a wide-open race, one UNLV can certainly contend to win a regular-season and tournament titles.

Which it must do to even sniff a fifth straight NCAA appearance.

“No doubt, we have to do well in conference,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “The good thing is, because the conference has had national respect and has received respect from the selection committee (in the past), we will have opportunities for quality wins both at the Thomas &Mack Center and on the road. So if we do well in conference, we’ll have a great chance to reach our ultimate goal of making the NCAA Tournament.”

It’s not a huge surprise the league is down. New Mexico lost a first-round NBA draft pick in Tony Snell from last year. UNLV lost the No. 1 overall pick in Anthony Bennett. San Diego State lost Jamaal Franklin, also in the NBA. Colorado State lost seemingly everyone but coach Larry Eustachy, and yet his quotes alone are worth the price of admission.

The Rebels played extremely well in stretches the past few days, a level of improvement that should it continue the next few months, will have Rice’s team very much near or at the top of the Mountain West. UNLV doesn’t have any other choice, not if it wants Selection Sunday to mean something.

“With UNLV, everyone respects the two big guys (Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch), and you can see Bryce Dejean-Jones is starting to figure things out,” said Doug Gottlieb, an analyst for CBS Sports who worked Monday’s championship. “But they just don’t have a signature win. People who watched them play Arizona State and Illinois and Arizona probably said, ‘That’s a pretty good team that is worth keeping an eye on.’

“Now, if they go into conference and beat a San Diego State and a New Mexico, they might be given the benefit of the doubt based on the program’s history and success.

“But today, right now, it’s a two-bid league. San Diego State and someone else. Maybe things will fall right for someone else and the conference gets a third bid. Maybe.”

It’s all still possible for UNLV. There are no elite teams in the Mountain West. It’s all still there for the taking.

The Rebels have no NCAA resume to speak of today, but are good enough to build one over the next three months.

It’s all on them.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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