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Rebels’ loss to SDSU might help their seeding in NCAA Tournament

What is the difference? Five percent more effort? Ten?

An extra arm length? Two?

A half-second quicker first step? A full second?

Better instincts?

All of the above?

It has become cliche around Mountain West Conference basketball circles that when this time of year arrives, when March brings another tournament filled with NCAA implications, when nine teams gather to decide the league’s automatic berth, coaches privately prefer not to oppose San Diego State.

None want to deal with trying to match the athleticism because, as proven at the Thomas & Mack Center the past three days, few, if any, can when the Aztecs are playing well.

UNLV discovered that again Saturday, never finding any rhythm because the Aztecs never allowed it. The Rebels fell 55-45 in the tournament championship game and will learn their NCAA fate today as an at-large team. There shouldn’t be an issue with that part. For the first time in league history, four teams appear set to receive invitations, as clear for anyone with a brain as San Diego State’s athletic advantage.

UNLV this season was better than the team that lost to the Aztecs three times last year, when you glanced out on the court and compared physiques and quickness between the teams and knew who stood with the men and who with the boys.

The Rebels had a collection of more skilled and versatile players than at this time in 2009.

They still couldn’t match up with San Diego State.

“They have several very good athletes,” UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. “When you think about (Malcolm) Thomas and (Billy) White, they can get out and cover perimeter guys as well as block shots on the interior. Then, of course, (Kawhi) Leonard is fantastic. He may set the standard for strong athletes, a combination of both strength and athleticism.

“Then they have other good athletes around those guys. They’re outstanding. They’re very athletic, very active and do a great job.”

Said UNLV guard Kendall Wallace: “Their length gave us problems. We were getting in there and getting good looks inside. We weren’t able to finish because of those long arms down there.”

What is the difference? A few inches when contesting a shot?

The ability to fight through screens and run at shooters a tad faster?

The Rebels on Saturday looked all of 45 points and 33 percent shooting, confused and frustrated and disjointed and wondering where in the world all those hands were coming from. Better athletes have this way of making what one night can appear a smooth, spaced, consistent offense into a giant mess.

UNLV doesn’t have a player such as Leonard. They don’t have a guy who can get 21 rebounds in the season’s biggest game. They don’t have that type of explosive kid. No one in the Mountain West does, an inside-outside skilled rebounder who is fearless and relentless in his effort. Darington Hobson of New Mexico comes closest. Leonard comes with a better attitude.

“He is awfully tough,” Kruger said of the league’s Freshman of the Year. “Everybody would like to recruit a guy to match up with him, but they’re hard to find.”

It makes you wonder what this loss will do to UNLV’s seed when the brackets are announced today. You can’t and shouldn’t expect any favors when you score 45 points on your home floor in a tournament final.

Funny. Most bracketologists for some time now have listed UNLV on the dreaded 8-9 line that comes with a second-round game against a No. 1 seed. But the Rebels’ forgettable performance Saturday might drop them to a 10 or 11.

Should the opening matchup fall right, meaning UNLV doesn’t find itself opposite another ultra-athletic team, that could prove a more favorable NCAA path to potentially surviving the first week of play.

“We feel like” four MWC teams will receive berths, Kruger said. “That doesn’t mean anything. We have to wait until (today). But I think the league and this weekend and everything, pretty clearly indicates four in.”

Something else clearly was indicated here the past few days: While the Aztecs don’t win enough to contend with the Brigham Youngs for a regular-season title most seasons, when it comes to nine teams in three days, no one wants to oppose them. No one wants those kind of matchup headaches with so much on the line.

UNLV can attest to this of late.

Athletically, it hasn’t been a fair fight between the two for some time.

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

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