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Past sins put UNLV on bubble

The big picture has been dwarfed to a few weeks and is much clearer today.

Things aren’t all that difficult to figure out.

UNLV’s basketball team, proving quite capable of dismissing forgettable opponents as it marches toward a Mountain West Conference Tournament that will decide its postseason fate, appears destined for a spot in the 3-6 seed game of the event’s first round.

Then things get interesting.

The Rebels on Wednesday were far more impressive than the paltry crowd that showed for a 78-62 victory over Texas Christian, a team that had seven turnovers in the first four minutes and seemed intent to throw at least three passes beyond the second row of fans before halftime.

"We got off to another pretty good start," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "We made some shots, were pretty solid defensively. A lot of guys played well. We got a lot of good minutes, good experience for a bunch of them."

Yeah. What he said.

They announced a crowd of 11,408 at the Thomas & Mack Center and, like the fictitious 13,000-plus who were supposed to have attended Saturday’s pasting of Colorado State, the real number was far lower.

Maybe everyone is waiting for the real drama.

Maybe it’s still very much a marketing issue at UNLV.

Maybe it’s both.

San Diego State had lost at Brigham Young before the Rebels ended their rout, meaning UNLV is now tied for third while also owning the tiebreaker against the Aztecs.

Translation: UNLV and its fans are unquestionably rooting for Utah to play well these last few games.

There is said to be some feeling around UNLV’s program that outsiders overreacted to the team being swept by the Utes, that the Rebels are a lock for an NCAA berth despite losing twice to a team with an RPI in the 160 range.

I’m guessing … uh … no.

UNLV was a 30-win team with an RPI of 10 in 2007 and was handed a No. 7 seed. It was also listed as an NCAA Tournament team on most bracketology predictions until the first week of March last season, when the Rebels finished fifth in the conference.

Translation II: You can’t overreact to being swept by a bad Utah team, and those who make up the selection committee don’t in any way approach their decisions the way the media does.

Utah or Colorado State probably will finish sixth in the MWC, and it is obvious CSU doesn’t present the same level of matchup problems for UNLV. Should the Utes finish sixth, however, UNLV could be staring at a road of Utah, New Mexico and either San Diego State or BYU to win the conference tournament and automatic NCAA berth.

It would be well earned, for sure.

For now, win. It always comes down to that this time of year. I never have bought into the whole eye test theory when it comes to which bubble teams deserve NCAA bids. Whose eyes should be trusted? Maybe they need LASIK. Maybe they watch a particular team only the few nights it plays above itself.

And why is it those who seem to pass the eye test always come from major conferences? Do people suddenly go blind when a Mountain West team appears on the TV screen, or at least when those judging are told the league really does play on television?

What the Rebels have done the past two games is all that can be expected — beat bad teams soundly. Two similar opportunities await (Saturday at Air Force and March 6 against Wyoming) before the conference tournament.

This isn’t a closing schedule that allows UNLV to improve its NCAA resume, but rather to avoid any damage to it. The Rebels might be in the field today. They might not be. But anyone who thinks it is a certainty at this point doesn’t know squat about the process or how history suggests a selection committee might view things.

"We played together well tonight, rebounded and defended," junior guard Tre’Von Willis said. "When we do those two things, we’re pretty tough to beat. We wanted to come out and be active and get after them.

"You see other (scores) on the screen, but we try not to concern ourselves with that. Right now, it’s all about focusing on us and what we need to do to keep this going."


Nothing else matters now.

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

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