Massamba refuses to accept mediocrity

I’m not sure Brice Massamba ever is going to be that guy. The one who rules a basketball key. The one whose presence is so strong, he dwarfs even a reasonably large defender holding on from behind. The one so athletic, he glides more than rumbles down a court, so nimble, he rises more than jumps.

The one who posts, catches, spins, pounds a hard dribble for effect and throws down.

The kind San Diego State seems to grow on trees.

I’m not sure Massamba ever has to be him to enjoy a fine career at UNLV.

Do you know who Massamba is? A kid who refused to continue being lazy and mediocre, who made a choice to change for the better and slimmer, who opted for trying to live up to expectations rather than simply passing them aside while reaching for another brownie.

He also is a big reason the Rebels will play for a Mountain West Conference Tournament championship at 4 p.m. today, the result of UNLV’s 70-66 win against Brigham Young before a sellout gathering of 18,500 Friday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.

UNLV meets San Diego State for the right to hold aloft a trophy, but if anything should have been decided following two fantastic games here, it is that the Mountain West is more than deserving of four NCAA Tournament bids.

Paper suggested this could be the best night in the tournament’s history, that semifinals between New Mexico and San Diego State and then UNLV-BYU could prove as good an evening of basketball as the conference has offered in its 11 years.

Paper was replaced with reality.

Eye tests are for an annual visit to the optometrist. But if people with a selection committee vote need to see to believe when gauging which teams deserve NCAA Tournament bids, then those also with a clue must surmise today that all four MWC teams playing Friday should make the field Sunday.

If this isn’t the year four berths are rewarded the MWC, you have to wonder if that time ever will come.

“There is an advantage to (playing at home) to some degree, how much we don’t know,” UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. “But we’ve got a good basketball team. We have four in the league that are playing at an awfully high level. If we weren’t a decent team, we wouldn’t be playing (today).”

His team beat BYU for the eighth straight time here, and one of the main reasons was a 6-foot-10-inch sophomore from Sweden who spent last year carrying far too much weight and not displaying near enough skill.

You had to wonder following those 27 games Massamba played in if he eventually would prove more bust than anything. He averaged 9.2 minutes, 2.0 points and 1.3 rebounds.

But he returned to school some 40 pounds lighter and ready to improve at a far more appropriate 238 pounds for a player at this level. He wasn’t dominating this season, wasn’t anyone opposing teams lost sleep over worrying how to stop, but just kept getting better, kept showing glimpses.

There were more than a few Friday, when Massamba scored a career-high 13 points and had six rebounds in 24 minutes. He also attempted four free throws over the final 1:35, a 64 percent shooter from the line all season, and made three.

It was 61-61 when Massamba made the front end of a one-and-one and then the second free throw.

UNLV never trailed again.

“I’m really happy for Brice,” Kruger said. “He has made so much progress. He made a lot of progress over the summer and fall, and he’ll make that progress again next summer. He’s a great player, a very good passer out of the post. He’s starting to get more comfortable, more confident in finishing opportunities in the post.”

I don’t know if he is a great player. He is unquestionably a much better one today than this time last year. He has that little hook move down to free himself inside that he should continue to use until some referee calls it.

Whatever works. Brice Massamba has traveled a long way to reach this point and never really left at all. He just decided to give the whole be-the-best-player-you-can-be theory a try. This isn’t his best. That part likely is to come.

I’m not sure he ever is going to be that guy, the massive, athletic, throw-down, snarling, screaming guy. But he still could have a terrific career here.

Friday was a great start.

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

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