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Imperfect UNLV paints perfect portrait

Rembrandt couldn’t have painted this portrait. Flawless doesn’t apply. There are nicks and scratches and even a few water stains. Beauty, in this case, is in the eye of the next offensive rebound and floor burn.

UNLV basketball today is a masterpiece in grit. It’s an impressive sight.

They stood atop the Thomas & Mack Center scorer’s table with smiles that stretched from Tropicana Avenue to wherever implausible dreams reside. The star player. The two former walk-ons-turned-major contributors. The center in a small forward’s body with the jumper of a guard. The old man of the group. All their teammates.

They stood and celebrated, an imperfect collection with the perfect makeup.

UNLV returns to the NCAA Tournament as Mountain West Conference Tournament champion, a group of Rebels so dissimilar in key ways from last season’s version that it’s pointless to even deliberate comparisons.

If those who led UNLV to a Sweet 16 appearance last season were about underrated talent and a magical confidence that carried them to such a memorable run, the group that beat Brigham Young 76-61 on Saturday is more about an enduring spirit and ceaseless persistency. It’s doubtful many college teams in decades have grinded things out the way the Rebels did all season. They absolutely refused to be sold short.

Rebuilding projects don’t win 26 games and repeat as league tournament champs by offering the standard amount of accepted effort. It takes a special group to discover what really exists deep inside, to embrace playing 40 minutes when your legs are lifeless after 35, to accept your skill isn’t good enough to win without also sacrificing a level of complete exertion.

"Every team is a little different," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "This team, it will be really satisfying to look back on what they’ve accomplished for some obvious reasons. Maybe no one really expected them to do that. They played hard all along the way.

"In terms of unselfishness, effort and willingness to do what each can do individually — hopefully a lot of our teams do that — I think this group has taken it to the extreme."

You can be sure whomever UNLV is matched against in the first round of the NCAAs when pairings are announced today will find the Rebels a bit maddening to prepare for.

You can practice and scheme to contain something like BYU’s fast break, knowing that the Cougars when in transition send a big man to the rim and flare shooters to the wings and that you really don’t have much of a chance to stop them if shots are falling.

But how do you prepare for Rene Rougeau’s hustle and Joe Darger’s resiliency and Corey Bailey’s determination and Curtis Terry’s wacky but endearing nature to look so frazzled one second and make game-winning plays the next?

How, if you are BYU, can you imagine in a five-point game with seven minutes remaining Wink Adams scoring his team’s next 14 points and all but single-handily ushering you into a runners-up role?

You can’t measure heart on a scouting report or watch game tape after game tape and get a full grasp of the indefinable traits that UNLV owns to even things out against more talented teams. No amount of film can reveal that.

"To come here four years ago, when Coach Kruger and his staff first got here, the whole motivation behind the UNLV program was to turn it around and take it back where it was many years ago," Terry said. "Slowly but surely, we’ve done that."

Security measures, for whatever brainless reason, were taken Saturday to refuse students and fans from rushing the court after the final buzzer, to reject them an exhilarating tradition linked to college basketball in March.

But much like a Rebels team that overcame all barriers impeding its path back to the NCAAs, the force of several hundred ultimately prevailed. It made for some tense moments and heated exchanges, but Thomas & Mack officials eventually made the correct decision to allow the frenzied gathering its five or so minutes of merriment.

Safety always should be a priority in these times, but trying to contain such a compilation of attitude and passion is often more dangerous than allowing it room to breathe and rejoice.

There are all kinds of masterpieces, and some of the more remarkable ones have nicks and scratches and even a few water stains. Today, waiting yet another NCAA selection show guaranteed to include its name, UNLV is one such portrait.

An imperfect collection with the perfect makeup.

Ed Graney’s column is published Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal com.

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