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Sloppy UNLV can’t afford to believe hype

Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino was asked Wednesday night following his team’s win against San Francisco about the Cardinals’ next opponent:

"We are going to play one of the finest teams in the country," Pitino told reporters. "Their ranking doesn’t do them justice. They used to be a good offensive team and a great defensive team. Now, they are just as good on offense as they are on defense.

"Of all the teams I have seen this year, there is none better than UNLV. That is not hyping them up. They just went to Illinois State from across the country and beat them by 31 — a team that was 5-1. (That’s) pretty impressive, so we have our work cut out for us, and we will be ready."

Did we mention Pitino had not yet seen film of UNLV against Boise State?

Second-half struggles can be overcome against inferior opponents, and fortunately for the Rebels on Wednesday, the Broncos filled such a role.

UNLV played as if it were fighting for its NCAA Tournament life the first 12 minutes, played as if it spent the past week reading its press clippings and basking in its Top 25 ranking the final nine and ultimately walked away an unimpressive 75-72 winner at the Orleans Arena.

The team that led 41-27 at halftime can win at Louisville on Saturday. The team that was outscored by 11 thereafter can’t. Sloppy will play about as well in Kentucky as thunderstorms the first Saturday of May.

Wake-up calls are for businessmen and hotels. Quality teams shouldn’t need them, but they almost always occur at one time or another. UNLV made a blowout a game because it forgot the things that earned it an 8-0 start and a No. 20 ranking.

It stopped making the simple play and instead attempted difficult ones. At one point, UNLV had eight assists to three turnovers. Over the next 15 minutes, it had five assists to 11 turnovers. Forced passes. One-handed tosses into traffic. Overdribbling. The Rebels totaled 22 turnovers, nearly 10 above their season average.

UNLV for the most part has done a good job not playing down to outmatched teams. There were second-half lapses against Tulsa and UNR, but the Rebels more often than not have exposed bad sides and even awful ones (see UC Riverside). Not on Wednesday.

Boise State is a respectable team. Nothing more.

It’s nearly impossible to defend for 40 minutes with the intensity UNLV shows most games, but not so when it comes to talking. UNLV players went as quiet defensively as the 8,320 watching once an early lead ballooned to 15-0.

The help defense was a step slow. Communication was nonexistent for stretches.

The Rebels played the second half much as the crowd reacted throughout — as if this thing was decided five minutes after the opening tip.

"Very careless with the ball late in the game," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "Fortunately, we had a margin there. Disappointed it was so sloppy. Certainly can’t afford to do that. It was disappointing to see that come out. But it hasn’t been a problem."

That’s important. It would be one thing if UNLV had sprinted to its impressive start by not playing well and still managing to win. But until a victory at UNR on Saturday and now Boise State, the Rebels have been every bit as good as Pitino states. Maybe not none-better-than-UNLV good but solid just the same.

You can learn from a win like this, from a game that, with nearly five minutes gone, you wondered if a college team ever had managed a shutout, and, with nearly 11 minutes gone, the biggest debate was over which player has the worst hair: Carlos Lopez of UNLV or Zack Moritz of Boise State. (It’s a tie and not a good one.)

You can learn from a win that, with 39 minutes gone, a once-laughable margin had shrunk to two. UNLV needs to take it all and learn at practice today before boarding its flight for Louisville on Friday, because the Rebels of Wednesday night were not close to being as good as Pitino suggests.

That’s not to say they still can’t be.

"Rick is a nice guy," Kruger said. "He’s always going to make positive comments about the opponent. We’re going into a tough place, and his team is playing extremely well. It will be a good challenge."

It will be a better one if UNLV remembers the kind of basketball that got it to 8-0 and not the type that produced a ninth win. Sloppy as it was.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday and Thursday on "Monsters of the Midday," Fox Sports Radio 920 AM.

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