Inconsistent UNLV pops own bubble

Boy, I sure called that one.

Maybe before assuming UNLV’s basketball team couldn’t possibly lose to San Diego State a third time, that playing on their home court would be enough of an advantage for the Rebels to contend for another Mountain West Conference Tournament title, that winning 31 of its past 32 games against league opponents at the Thomas & Mack Center would be enough of an edge for UNLV to advance, I should have considered a few points:

• You can’t beat people you can’t guard, and when the Aztecs play as they did Thursday, UNLV can’t guard them. Not man to man. Not out of a zone. Not on a playground. Not in a closet. Not anywhere.

• One on five offensively works if the one is Kobe Bryant and the five are elementary school children. It does not work when the one is Wink Adams and the five are long, athletic, instinctive college defenders.

• When considering UNLV players who are exhibiting emotion and energy and desire and focus this week, remember it’s the women’s team.

• I thought it would be difficult for the Rebels to be outplayed, outcoached, outhustled, outshot, outrebounded, all the while amassing five gigantic assists over 40 minutes. I was wrong.

Rene Rougeau says the Rebels will sit and wait and pray for a miracle come Sunday, but the UNLV senior guard will have to hope for an NCAA Tournament selection committee capable of walking on water, healing a leper and calming a stormy sea all at once.

The Rebels neither deserve nor should anticipate a third consecutive NCAA bid, not after meekly departing the conference tournament a 71-57 quarterfinal loser to San Diego State.

Your NCAA resume isn’t hurt winning on your court this time of year. It can be destroyed losing on it.

“I’m not going to give any committee reason not to select us,” UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. “But I don’t think that we’ve done the things at this point that you’d sit there on Sunday expecting to be in.”

This arguably is the weakest season in decades for NCAA bubble teams, which is the only reason so many bracketology forecasts have included UNLV firmly in their fields the past several weeks.

If this were a standard year on the bubble, the Rebels would have been out long ago. They finished fifth in the Mountain West, two games out of fourth. Most bubbles pop with just that fact.

As it is, their chances of getting in now compare to any UNLV player being able to defend Aztecs senior Kyle Spain off the dribble, which means far from slim and this close to none.

One conference assistant coach said Thursday that when San Diego State plays at this level, it’s the league’s best team. It would have been hard to argue, and when you consider the Aztecs started their 11th straight different lineup, imagine how good their season could have been if not for countless injuries and sicknesses and one key early-season suspension.

As poorly as UNLV played — and the Rebels were really bad in spots Thursday — it lost to a better team with a collection of fantastic players. San Diego State going 3-0 against UNLV had a lot more to do with the Aztecs than the Rebels.

But here’s the thing: What if the miracle happens for UNLV? What if enough bubble teams also lose and those UNLV wins against Louisville and Arizona and Brigham Young twice — which only seem like 30 years ago now — somehow slide the Rebels into the bracket?

What kind of team would be going?

One that if not for Adams’ 26 points on Thursday might have lost by 25. One that over 31 games never had a true floor leader emerge, someone, anyone, who could grab this team by its throat in stressful times and direct it out of prolonged funks. One that could look so terrific for stretches and so dreadful for others, that is 5-6 in its last 11 games.

That team.

If that team by some incredible occurrence made the NCAA Tournament, it certainly wouldn’t be worthy.

“We were just up and down all year,” Kruger said. “I don’t think we ever had a stretch where we said week after week we did things consistently better. That’s obviously what you’re looking for. We didn’t.

“We were inconsistent in every aspect of the game, whether it be shooting, rebounding, defensively, offensively. We just never did find a niche like we were consistent in our improvement.”

There is a label for that kind of team.

NIT.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at 702-383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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