Now it gets tough for Rebels

Listen closely. You can hear it. It has happened each time UNLV’s basketball team lost a game the last few years.

The music begins.

The tune is unmistakable.

Let’s get physical, is right.

The good news: There is not a Mountain West Conference team with the size and strength and grit and toughness and ability to push the Rebels around the playground like Kansas State and Southern California did.

The potentially bad news: There are conference teams strong enough to test UNLV’s ability to not fall apart when the school bully expands his chest.

"BYU, perhaps, and San Diego State," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "But neither have the type of players Kansas State and USC did. When you look across the country, there aren’t many teams that do. We’ve played 14 games and only two opponents had them. We got beat by both.

"We have to find a way to stay in those types of games, and we didn’t. That’s disappointing."

The Rebels open Mountain West play tonight at Brigham Young, which made its way into both top-25 polls this week and has a junior guard (Jimmer Fredette) who is piling up conference Player of the Week awards like snow outside the Marriott Center. Teams that make things easy on Fredette don’t have a chance (see Arizona). Teams that pressure him at least have half of one.

UNLV also entered conference play 12-2 last year, quickly gave the appearance of more pretender than contender and finished fifth with a 9-7 league record. The Rebels are deeper now, more balanced, seemingly more on the same page across the roster.

But it’s debatable whether they are more physical, which could mean the difference between fighting for first place and settling for third or fourth.

"We are about to play probably the best team we have faced all year," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "I do believe their depth and pressure will be unique to what we have seen. We’ll see how we handle it. We’re playing a great team."

Physical doesn’t always translate to size. When the Rebels lost those games to Kansas State and USC, they didn’t screen well enough, which led to fewer good shots, which led to more misses, which didn’t allow them an opportunity to compete.

Kruger is a terrific coach, proven far more times than not over the course of any season. But he can’t turn pillows into boulders. He can’t sit at a computer and go all Weird Science and conjure the ideal big man, although if he wants to type long enough to produce a 1985 Kelly LeBrock, who are we to argue?

It’s also true that post players with great size and skill are like paid vacations. Everyone wants more of them, but there is a pecking order. It often begins with which fancy suit to wear to the NBA Draft.

Most college teams are left with one of two options: a flawed big man with the hope of coaching him up or an undersized body with the hope he has enough athleticism to counter all that mass under the basket.

"I think you can be made to be a more physical player," UNLV forward Matt Shaw said. "I know I have improved there but still know there is a lot of room to be much better. It really comes down to will, to mentally preparing in practice to fight for 40 minutes in games. It’s something we need to work on.

"You can be the biggest, strongest guy out there and not be physical at all. You can also be the smallest guy out there and the toughest to defend."

UNLV will know early where it stands in conference, because whoever designs the league schedule has a twisted sense of humor. The Rebels follow a game at BYU with one at No. 15 New Mexico on Saturday before returning next week to host arguably the league’s most athletic team, San Diego State, and a Utah team that despite its 7-7 record has wins against Utah State, Illinois, Michigan and at Louisiana State.

Big. Small. Tough. Soft. Teams that win conference titles in college basketball usually follow the same formula: Don’t lose on your own floor and win road games against the league’s lower-tiered teams.

In this respect, opening at BYU and New Mexico should be seen as nothing but a great opportunity for UNLV, because even if the Rebels lose both games, try to name Mountain West teams that have a chance to win at Provo, Utah, or Albuquerque this season.

Hint: Maybe none.

"How a schedule falls is beyond our control," Kruger said. "Getting better is something we can control."

So is getting tougher.

You can’t do so on a computer. Kelly LeBrock of 1985 isn’t available to set any screens or grab any rebounds tonight.

Not that we would argue with it.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He also can be heard weeknights from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on "The Sports Scribes" on KDWN-AM (720) and www.kdwn.com.

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