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Ugly wins are always better than alternative

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The resume today will show a win against the nation’s No. 11 basketball team on a neutral court that was anything but neutral. It will not mention the names Jacob Pullen or Curtis Kelly or impermissible benefits or how any of it affected Kansas State on Tuesday evening.

Excuses don’t play when March arrives and bubbles form and NCAA Tournament dreams are realized or crushed. Ugly wins are always judged better than the alternative.

UNLV needn’t apologize for beating the Wildcats 63-59 before a tsunami of purple 18,000-plus strong at the Sprint Center and an ESPN2 audience on a night when Kansas State’s two best players were suspended for apparently purchasing clothes for a price neither you nor I nor anyone without Division I skills would receive.

"You want to make sure your team stays focused and still worries about the right things," UNLV assistant coach Steve Henson said. "(Pullen and Kelly) are two key, key guys for them, but our message beforehand didn’t change — compete like crazy. But, sure, there is a concern about a lack of focus knowing those two guys were out."

Focus wasn’t a problem. UNLV just didn’t play well. Didn’t shoot well. Didn’t rebound well. Didn’t defend the dribble well. Didn’t do anything especially well, except win.

That’s huge, by the way.

Here’s why: Kansas State is nails-to-the-chalkboard when it comes to its style of play. The Wildcats are about as good as it gets at grinding for 40 minutes. They are usually talented enough to be twice as physical as their opponent and still have fewer calls go against them, which happened again Tuesday.

But their games are like watching your teenager learn to drive stick shift. They have the flow of a filibuster.

There is nothing bad about proving you can fly thousands of miles to play a ranked team and win that type of game in this type of atmosphere on a night when your shooting made the rim appear the size of a quarter and you were owned on the boards by a 43-26 margin.

UNLV spent its first nine games having most things go its way, making its own breaks by creating offense off defense, jumping to early leads and not allowing teams to rally, being the aggressor and pressuring others into countless mistakes, making shot after shot after shot.

They didn’t have to execute over and over in the final minutes of games to win. They didn’t have to perform at their highest level to discover success. They didn’t have to be great to be considered by some as, well, great.

Things have changed of late. The Rebels are settling more offensively. They’re missing good looks more often than not. They’re not thinking drive over jumper enough. Their frontcourt players hear more whistles than a swimsuit model strolling down the beach.

It’s getting to where you wonder if Quintrell Thomas, Brice Massamba and Carlos Lopez prefer watching games from the comfort of cushioned chairs.

"Our big guys just foul like crazy and did again tonight," coach Lon Kruger said. "We’re not a physical group, so this was good for us. It helps us in terms of trying to be more physical. We have a couple people in our league like San Diego State who are really physical and do a great job on that part. At BYU. At New Mexico. A lot of tough places to play. This will help.

"Proud of our guys tonight. Obviously, catching (Kansas State) a little short-handed made a world of difference. No denying that. But it was still hard to get scores."

What winning does here is take much of the sting away from losing to UC Santa Barbara at home. The Rebels end nonconference play against Central Michigan on Dec. 30, meaning this was the final opportunity to earn what an NCAA Tournament selection committee would deem a quality win before Mountain West Conference play begins.

It’s a good addition to the resume.

It’s far better than the alternative.

"When shots aren’t falling, we have to get a little lower, a little tougher, a little stronger," Henson said. "We’re certainly not in panic mode."

They beat the country’s No. 11 team in a hostile arena and didn’t play well doing so.

In the pursuit of an NCAA berth, that’s huge, definitely bigger than the price cut that Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly apparently receive when shopping for new clothes.

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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