Response to success is crucial

Success was the 19-point lead and not surrendering when it disappeared. Success was discovering the resolve to finish with a win and send a ranked opponent and its arrogant coach packing.

But do you know where UNLV’s basketball team found the most success the past few days?

On a practice court, running and sweating before a handful of spectators after learning it had earned its own Top 25 ranking, after thousands cheered and rocked the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday, after all the words of praise and splendid reviews had been showered upon the Rebels.

Success is beating Louisville.

It is more so how you respond.

"We have bounced back from every win and made progress so far," Rebels coach Lon Kruger said. "The (Louisville game) came with more exposure, of course, but the players came to practice and didn’t respond any differently — very focused. They reacted like you want, which means hungrier.

"I’m not sure this next game — win, lose or draw — in terms of how we handle it will be a total defining moment. It’s a huge challenge, and we’re on the road for the first time. We have to go down there and play better to have a chance."

I’ve never been big on the whole you-have-to-lose-to-learn-how-to-win concept. It’s a defeatist attitude. You can learn plenty from how you win, from watching a huge lead dwindle at home and having the resiliency not to accept defeat.

We have seen the Rebels handle early achievement in an almost flawless manner, which includes not reacting when slighted.

I’m not sure who decides the Mountain West Conference Player of the Week award, but how is UNLV guard Oscar Bellfield (who scored eight of his 17 points after Louisville tied the game at 62 with just more than five minutes left) not chosen over a player (Grant Parker of Air Force) whose 25 points and career-best 11 rebounds came against Charleston Southern?

At some point, doesn’t the opponent have to be considered in these decisions?

It is a minute snub in a long season, and one of the best signs about UNLV thus far has been its indifference to anything beyond preparation and execution. There is no question those fans watching practice Monday were far more excited about the fast start than UNLV players. It’s how things should be the final day of November.

The Rebels have been really good for stretches through five games and deserve the rankings (No. 24 in The Associated Press poll and No. 21 in the eyes of coaches) that arrived Monday.

Wins against UNR and Southern Illinois can improve an NCAA Tournament resume come March. Taking down Louisville can keep your name on that at-large board. Beating an Arizona team in Tucson tonight only would strengthen that position months from now.

But the Rebels are going to lose games, be it against the Wildcats or at Santa Clara on Saturday or against Kansas State next week or thereafter. They are going to face pockets of adversity throughout the season.

They are going to drop a game or two that make you scratch your head. There are going to be nights when they can’t make a shot to save their lives. They are going to experience the customary ups and downs of 30 games.

What does a coach look for in those times?

"Generally, not making progress between games," Kruger said. "If they start playing game to game and are just getting through a practice, that’s not what you want. This group hasn’t conducted itself at all like that.

"We always dwell on playing the next possession as if it’s the most important. That’s tough to do because we’re fighting human nature. You probably never get exactly where you want to be with it, but the Louisville game was a great example."

For this reason: Two days later, the Louisville win couldn’t have played out better for Kruger as he continues to shape what is a profoundly deep and yet, in spots, inexperienced team.

Think if the Rebels had grown that lead to 19 and coasted. What if Louisville hadn’t answered with a run? Would the players been as attentive in practice Monday?

Louisville coach Rick Pitino spoke rather smugly afterward, suggesting the Rebels should avoid the arrogance that often comes with beating a team like his. He said the most important thing for UNLV was to remain humble.

The team practicing Monday, 48 hours after somehow beating Mighty Rick and his supposedly invincible band of Cardinals, continued to act and speak in an unassuming manner.

If the Rebels remain as consistent in times of defeat, who knows how far this journey might stretch.

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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