weather icon Clear
RJ App
Vegas News, Alerts, ePaper

Ranked Rebels now go from hunter to hunted

The lunacy will only heighten now, and that’s always a good thing, because being relevant nationally for a college basketball program sure beats the alternative.

So it goes that UNLV defeated the country’s No. 1 team on Saturday night and a reporter asked Dave Rice if it was his biggest win as a head coach.

(Yes. He. Asked. That. Question.)

Give the White Dress Shirt Coach some credit. Rice offered a short pause before answering, either to refrain from laughing the kid right out of Orleans Arena or perhaps because he thinks Cal Poly has a chance to go far in March.

So it goes that some guy wearing a shirt of the late rapper Tupac Shakur flipping the bird stood under a basket beforehand screaming, “They don’t know (expletive) about Maryland Parkway!” which I assumed meant North Carolina players were unaware of the ridiculously long lines at Toys R Us or the strong wireless connection at Starbucks.

Tupac then began hugging UNLV players on the bench in the game’s final seconds, both to the surprise of those being hugged and the unconscious ushers who allowed him to get so close.

So it goes that unranked teams become ranked, that a UNLV squad not yet seen in the Top 25 this season is now very much included. The Rebels on Monday were 18th in the Associated Press poll and 20th in the ESPN/coaches poll. North Carolina is fifth in both.

“It puts a bull’s-eye on our backs,” Rice said. “We’re excited about the recognition that comes with it, and yet at the same time, it only guarantees your upcoming opponents will give you an even better effort.

“Carolina is a great team. I have no doubt that, sooner rather than later this season, they will be back at No. 1. They’re terrific. I don’t worry a whole lot about our specific (ranking). I’ve been doing this long enough to know we’d probably be in that (15-18) range in terms of our first time in the poll. We now need to be motivated to stay in it.”

I have voted in the AP poll for four years and ranked the Rebels 14th this week, having included them in each of my polls this season because when you return four starters from a 24-win team that advanced to the NCAA Tournament and add parts (see Moser, Mike) that will immediately make you better, it stands to reason you can compete at a high level.

The Rebels didn’t just win Saturday. They beat the Tar Heels.

There’s a difference.

UNLV is a good team that for stretches against North Carolina was great, and Monday’s ranking was as deserved as it was expected. The consensus in the media room following the 90-80 final was that the Rebels would be placed at or around 15th.

I’ve never considered the coaches poll anything more than assistants or sports information directors filling out weekly ballots, usually without even consulting the head coach. Arizona received more votes this week than San Diego State in the coaches poll. The Aztecs beat the Wildcats in Tucson on Wednesday and led the entire way. You get the idea.

I think No. 18 is too low for UNLV, but not so much that it’s absurd. Three AP voters didn’t include the Rebels at all on their ballots, which is absurd to a level they should be forced to spend the next week down on Maryland Parkway with Tupac.

Being ranked is important. Not for one’s chances to make the NCAA Tournament, because more often than not over 30 or so games, you’ll be invited if good enough.

It’s more a big picture thing. Rankings are important for exposure, for recruiting, for offering proof to all those high school kids you’re chasing that the vision you sell holds merit.

It’s important that on any night you are playing, ESPN will almost always show clips of your game because of that number beside the letters UNLV.

Should the Rebels remain ranked a few weeks from now, they will have found success on the road against the likes of UC Santa Barbara and Wichita State and Wisconsin and Illinois.

Translation: How they respond to beating No. 1 might be more significant than actually doing so.

“We had a really good practice today,” Rice said Monday. “We have seniors on this team who won’t allow anyone to (lose focus). The (ranking) is great. Great for fans, for our players, for recruiting. It’s not something we run away from. We want to be ranked.”

I can only imagine the emotions Tupac is feeling today.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 3 to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday on “Monsters of the Midday,” Fox Sports Radio 920 AM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.