If the loss at Texas Christian and the debacle at Colorado State proved anything, it’s that the separation from upper to lower tier in Mountain West Conference basketball isn’t as obvious this season.
If the way UNLV responded to those defeats against Wyoming on Saturday night proved anything, it’s that the Rebels when energized can still very much resemble a contender.
Effort goes a long way in changing the direction of a struggling team.
Effort mixed with focus goes even further.
The Rebels still have noticeable holes that good opponents will expose, but when they attack with the awareness displayed in an 83-66 pasting of the Cowboys, the Thomas & Mack Center remains the league’s strongest home-court advantage next to a certain team and arena in Provo, Utah.
If nearly every game in this league is going to be a dogfight — and that appears the case more than not — you might as well offer your last drop of sweat rather than leaving anything to waste.
Take a night off and, well, you just might lose to the feeble likes of Colorado State.
“Everyone played their hearts out tonight,” Rebels senior Rene Rougeau said. “We really needed a big-time win like this.”
It’s not a result that will open any eyes outside the boundaries of nine MWC schools, but in a league where five teams are now separated from first place by one-half game, falling further from the top is not a recommended strategy.
You always hear about teams playing hard, but distinguishing between those who do and don’t is often impossible for those not coaching. Sometimes, though, there is tangible evidence. Like, say, 22 offensive rebounds.
UNLV pursued missed shots against Wyoming like a coyote its exhausted prey. Offensive rebounding is part positioning, part fortune and mostly effort. Joe Darger and Rougeau combined for 12; the Cowboys had nine total.
“I liked our aggressiveness, being on the attack, making plays for each other,” UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. “It’s a step in the right direction.
“We missed a lot of shots (the Rebels were 33-for-77 from the field) but played with great enthusiasm. A better effort, for sure. It takes more than just working hard. We had worked but hadn’t really been competing for the result.”
That wasn’t an issue for any Rebel on Saturday, and some of that had to do with an announced gathering of 17,190, more than an impressive number considering how poorly UNLV played in Fort Collins this week.
Rougeau is as fun a player to watch as any in the Mountain West when he is this animated, when he fills a stat line with 14 points, nine rebounds, four assists, three steals and a few floor burns from diving for loose balls over 35 minutes.
Even when he makes a mistake or five (his number of turnovers), he is trying to make something good happen.
He had only two rebounds at Colorado State on Wednesday, which is astounding. Someone with his motor should never have that few. His pursuit of the ball Saturday was more to his level.
Attacking is also what can set Wink Adams apart, because when the senior guard gets to the basket as he did against the Cowboys, his game opens up and you get a 20-point, five-rebound evening from the team’s leading scorer.
“That’s the Wink I know,” Rougeau said.
“He looked like the old Wink,” Kruger added.
But can he and the others bottle such exertion and continue forward?
There is no tougher conference challenge from which to try than Brigham Young, which the Rebels visit Wednesday. This much is certain: BYU won’t be looking past anyone.
The Cougars on Saturday lost their first conference game by falling at New Mexico by 19, but BYU on the road as opposed to BYU at home is the difference between second-grade addition and college-level calculus.
“I think for sure that BYU is playing better than anyone else, but the group right behind them is pretty big,” Kruger said. “It’s going to be a battle all the way through (conference).
“I don’t know if enough people can beat BYU in the end, but that’s the challenge for everyone else right now.”
The kind of effort UNLV showed Saturday would help make that winding road a bit easier for the Rebels to navigate.
Mix it with the same level of focus, and the loss at Texas Christian and the debacle at Colorado State could fade into the past rather quickly.
If the last week proved anything for the Rebels, it’s that taking nights off gets you burned, healed only by then playing your hearts out.
Ed Graney can be reached at 702-383-4618 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Slideshow