UNLV’s only path now: three wins in three days

SALT LAKE CITY — The best thing you can say today: A strategy for UNLV’s basketball team to make a third straight NCAA Tournament has become abundantly clear.

The worst thing you can say: That plan requires the Rebels to be consistently good over a three-day span.

It is a journey that probably will begin in a game between Nos. 4 and 5 seeds in the first round of the conference tournament, which short of a few implausible developments in the next 10 days is where UNLV will begin when nine Mountain West teams gather at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The probability of that placement grew more certain with a 70-60 loss to first-place Utah on Wednesday night, a game the Rebels lost here over a six-minute stretch to end the first half.

That’s when Utah did what it wanted offensively and the Rebels more than obliged by not reacting with any defensive movement resembling desire. That’s when a 20-20 game became a 38-24 lead for the Utes.

Fourth or fifth place in the Mountain West won’t increase the interest of the NCAA Tournament selection committee in its early hours of deliberating at-large candidates. It won’t push you any further onto the bubble, but it could shove you off it.

It’s not certain the Rebels can’t still gain an at-large bid if they reach the tournament final and lose. Their resume will still contain quality wins against Louisville, Arizona, Utah and Brigham Young (twice).

It’s not definite UNLV needs to win all three games to ensure itself a spot, but this is certain: The Rebels sure better prepare and play as if they must.

Leaving anything to chance now in a tournament on your own court would be like wandering around pit row during a NASCAR race. Stupid.

"I think we’ve always felt like we needed to go into the (conference tournament) and win games," coach Lon Kruger said. "I don’t think we ever felt it would be OK to lose. We’ll prepare for it the same we have the last two years."

A big difference: They went 12-4 in the conference the last two years, each time owning the No. 2 tournament seed. They would’ve perhaps been in trouble without advancing to the final each time, though an RPI of 10 in 2007 suggested at least one win would have been enough.

In those years, UNLV’s margin for error in early March was pleasantly stout. This year it’s razor thin.

The advantage of playing the tournament at home remains enormous, but Kruger will have to deal with issues that didn’t exist the previous two years. Specifically, predicting how his leading players might perform, which this season has been like forecasting the next Super Lotto winner.

Wink Adams has played 129 career games for UNLV, and the senior guard has offered countless more positive moments than negative. You don’t score more than 1,800 points by being average.

But he has struggled as a shooter from the start of the season, and his 3-for-12 effort Wednesday only supported this point: UNLV could play well and still not win three tournament games, but it has zero chance if Adams resembles the player he did here.

"Wink had a tough night," Kruger said. "We need him to be good, no question about that. He’s been there a long time for us. We need to make sure he’s (playing well)."

Said Adams: "I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself this year to pick my team up and make plays when we’ve needed them. I want my teammates to believe in me, but I have to knock down shots when they are there."

You get a clear picture of reality after 28 games. UNLV is a good but hardly great team whose major warts — no size, an utter lack of physical feistiness — are exposed more by some teams than others.

It would be interesting to hear Kruger rank his most frustrating times with a team over the years. You have to believe this season has offered him some of his more exasperating moments as a coach.

That could all change over 72 hours, over three days and three games.

The strategy is fairly clear today.

UNLV might not win the conference tournament and still emerge with an at-large NCAA bid, but those odds shrink considerably as the Mountain West elite continues to separate itself from those seemingly now destined for the 4 vs. 5 game.

The Rebels need to think three wins in three days.

It’s the deserved fate of any team sitting in fifth place.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com

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