UNC win, gobs of good fortune land Rebels favorable seed, venue

The crowd was erupting around him, and his players were standing and offering one another high-fives, and UNLV basketball coach Dave Rice sat in a chair with his legs crossed next to his wife on Sunday.

His eyes remained fixated on the large video screen lowered to center court at the Thomas & Mack Center. Rice rubbed his chin over and over, impervious to the noise and obviously lost in this thought:

Why didn’t I call my parents in California this morning and have them buy me a lottery ticket?

Let’s settle on a two-year moratorium, which is how long UNLV fans should be required to refrain from any negative jabs at the NCAA Tournament’s selection process.

Christmas might not have come early for the Rebels, but much good fortune did.

If you didn’t already know how important that win against then-No. 1 North Carolina in November was, you do now. UNLV was handed the top No. 6 seed in the NCAA field — its highest in 20 years — and sent to Albuquerque, N.M., to face No. 11 Colorado on Thursday.

Sent to a Mountain West Conference city to play on a court most of the Rebels are incredibly familiar with to meet a team that was picked 11th in an awful Pac-12 Conference and wasn’t even in the tournament two days ago.

"We’re pleased," said Rice, amazingly with a straight face. "Certainly, there have been some setbacks and some disappointments, but we learned from those experiences. I think the biggest thing for us is that we played a very tough nonconference schedule. We did the things the committee always talks about being important. I feel like we were rewarded.

"There is no doubt the Carolina win was huge for us. North Carolina is a No. 1 seed, so to have a win against them certainly enhanced our resume."

How much?

This much: UNLV ranked 21st on the overall seed list, three spots ahead of San Diego State, which also received a 6 seed but was shipped to Columbus, Ohio, to play North Carolina State.

New Mexico ranked 20th on the list and got a 5 seed, but the Lobos are matched against a No. 12 in Long Beach State that has every chance to pull an upset, if it should be considered one at all.

North Carolina was a statement game on national television with the country watching. It planted the notion of how good UNLV could be when playing its absolute best.

So even as the Rebels struggled on the road during conference play and went 5-5 over their last 10 games, the weight of that one result stayed the course in the minds of those bracketing the field.

The 6 seed is fair given UNLV’s lofty Ratings Percentage Index (18) and schedule strength (39), but the fact the Rebels were sent to by far the most accommodating venue for them and their fans speaks loudly to Rice’s point on nonleague success.

Colorado didn’t have much of it. It has an RPI of 59 and lost at home to Wyoming by 11 and at Colorado State by one. Its best nonconference win is at home by two over a Georgia team that hardly has Dominique Wilkins.

The Buffaloes went 11-7 in a Pac-12 that was so down, it became the first power league in history not to send its regular-season champion — Washington — to the NCAAs. Colorado wasn’t even in the field until it beat Arizona for the conference tournament title on Saturday.

Which might mean everything on Thursday or, well, nothing.

No event breathes life and confidence into teams like the NCAA Tournament. Those fans of UNLV who might already be discussing their team’s chances of upsetting Baylor in the Round of 32 immediately should recall the past two years, the magic of Ali Farokhmanesh and Northern Iowa and the dominance of an Illinois team the Rebels were favored to beat.

"Some people thought after we beat North Carolina, we were going to the Final Four by skipping the four games before it," Rice said. "Whatever the perception (of Colorado) is is fine. I just know that we will be grounded and our guys will be ready to play Thursday, and they will understand how good Colorado is."

I know that while cheers broke out around him Sunday and he rubbed his chin and looked like the scholarly professor contemplating a speech on contemporary European politics, Dave Rice was a happy man.

As he might put it, a really, really, really happy one.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday on "Gridlock," ESPN Radio 1000 AM and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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