UNLV running wrong way in Mountain West race

Let’s review: They played a Mountain West Conference basketball game at the Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday night supposedly featuring one of the league’s top four teams and another hoping to prove itself worthy of being mentioned among such a group.

I suppose that means UNLV and New Mexico on Saturday will play for the coveted fourth spot.

Colorado State has a pretty tight grasp on No. 3 for now.

The Rams don’t need to demonstrate much more when it comes to matching themselves against the Rebels this season, not after running Lon Kruger’s team out of its own building to a chorus of boos and a final score of 78-63.

It was that close only because a whistle-happy officiating crew in the final few minutes couldn’t accept what everyone else knew — that the Rams had clinched things by going up by 10 with nearly six minutes left.

They announced a crowd of 11,266, and there weren’t 3,000 remaining as a dejected UNLV squad made its way through the handshake line at game’s end, when many who stayed let the home team know of their unhappiness with such a result.

The Rebels today are one fewer run at Air Force to being 1-4 in the conference, instead sitting at 14-5 overall and 2-3 in league. They are three games back of first-place San Diego State and have already dropped two home conference games. Fourth place is a more probable long-term placement than not right now.

Something is obviously wrong. Colorado State is vastly improved and expertly coached, but how does a team come here and fight so much harder? How does a visitor appear to want success so much more?

Tre’Von Willis (knee) again didn’t play, which you knew was the case when the senior dressed for the game but also sported some fancy earrings, which I’m pretty sure would have drawn another whistle had he attempted to check in. You’re either playing or you’re not, right?

But it’s more than that. Chemistry is tough to gauge for anyone not intimately involved with a team, but the Rebels at times seem not only on different pages but entirely different chapters. They have no inside presence, and the three assigned the post spot play such sporadic and inconsistent minutes, it’s a wonder the position produces much of anything.

On Wednesday, it offered a combined 12 points and six rebounds in 36 minutes. Brice Massamba played 15 and had zero rebounds. Quintrell Thomas finally saw the floor for more than a breath and managed seven points and six rebounds in 16 minutes. Carlos Lopez played just five.

Colorado State took full advantage.

This was a solid butt-kicking.

"I didn’t imagine (that score), but I did think we could come in here and win," Rams coach Tim Miles said. "We got lucky with Tre’Von out and them having a bad shooting night. UNLV is always one of the top four teams in our league, but at some point, you have to put up or shut up if you’re us. You can say you want to make the move and get to that level, but until you perform and win games, nobody will believe you.

"I was really proud of our guys to a man. That’s a good win."

Luck had nothing to do with it. Colorado State still wins if Willis plays. The Rams began attacking while departing their team bus and didn’t stop, never allowing UNLV’s pressure to stand them up for long stretches.

The Rams don’t defend the 3-point line all that well, but when UNLV is continuing to struggle from distance (it was 2-for-15 Wednesday), average defense is good enough.

The Rams were better in a zone, in part because the Rebels looked so poor at times attacking it.

(Suggestion: If for some reason UNLV finds itself matched against Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament, bet the mortgage and take the under. I’m not sure the Rebels would reach 40 against that zone. Not that talk of March Madness should be rampant around here right now.)

"We wanted to come in and deliver the first blow and then match their runs all night," said Colorado State forward Travis Franklin, who looked anything but undersized in ripping the Rebels for 24 points and eight rebounds. "We fought the whole game. People talk about there being a top four teams in this league … . We wanted to come here and close the gap."

Consider it closed and the Rams today owners of a No. 3 placement.

UNLV and New Mexico can fight it out here for No. 4 on Saturday.

Yipee.

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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