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Ex-UNLV coach Todd Simon builds winner at Southern Utah

When we chatted Wednesday, Todd Simon was navigating his third hotel lobby since the Southern Utah basketball team he coaches had won its first regular-season conference championship in 20 years.

The former UNLV interim coach and his Thunderbirds had yet to return home to Cedar City since earning a banner for the rafters with a victory at Portland State the previous weekend.

Welcome to the Big Sky Conference, where they’ll leave the light on for you — provided the guy at the front desk doesn’t succumb to hypothermia. It’s an amalgamation of peaks and valleys — but mostly peaks — comprising eight states, many of which require tire chains and a Saint Bernard with a full cask of antifreeze during basketball season.

“We’re at Portland State last Wednesday, play Thursday-Saturday, and it made no sense to go home for like 36 hours and hop on four different planes,” said Simon, who coached the Rebels to a 9-8 record after Dave Rice was fired midstream during the 2015-16 season.

“So we just came to Boise. This has been like Day 8 on the road. We’re on our third hotel, but we don’t blink.”

Bards and buckets

The Thunderbirds did not flinch, either, in their Big Sky Tournament quarterfinal game on Thursday. They defeated Northern Colorado 91-83 to improve to 20-3. With two more wins in the land of potatoes and blue field turf, Simon’s team will clinch the Big Sky’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Which seems hard to fathom given the T-Birds finished 2-27 as recently as 2013-14. The Big Sky had not only fallen on the Southern Utah program, it had flattened it like a pancake.

Simon’s first SUU team, which finished 6-27, knocked so many peach baskets off the wall that when a couple of visitors from Las Vegas showed up at the 5,300-seat America First Event Center only to find roughly 5,000 of them unoccupied, Simon showed his appreciation by inviting them into the locker room for his pregame speech.

“I enjoy the rebuilding process but this was kind of the ultimate challenge,” said the Big Sky Coach of the Year who spent 12 years in Las Vegas as a Rebels assistant under Lon Kruger, an assistant and head coach at Findlay Prep and an aide under Rice before making the skip up Interstate 15 to breathe fresh mountain air and life into the SUU program.

“You go to Walmart and convince two more people to come to the games,” Simon said about creating a basketball buzz in a hamlet better known for bards than buckets, owing to its annual Shakespeare Festival.

Bracket racket

To be or not to be an NCAA Tournament team — that still remains the question despite most bracketologists already having pencilled Southern Utah in as the Big Sky’s automatic qualifier.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has Simon’s team as a No. 14 seed against No. 3 Arkansas in the Indiana bubble. Andy Katz of NCAA.com projects the offensive-minded Thunderbirds — SUU’s average of 84.2 points trails only Gonzaga, Colgate, Baylor and Iowa — will provide the opposition for Bob Huggins’ down and defensively dirty West Virginia side in another 3 vs. 14 matchup.

Either would be a fine reward for a fantastic season under trying circumstances. It also would be just the second time Southern Utah has gone to the Big Dance after frightening the bejezus out of Boston College in a 3 vs. 14 meeting in 2001.

Simon says the T-Birds were upset to lose scheduled games against Kansas, Michigan and Wake Forest because of COVID.

“We thought we could make some noise because of the roster we have. So the guys are eager to get a matchup with a big boy,” he said, permitting himself a maddening thought should Southern Utah cut down the nets in Boise on Saturday.

It would mean another hotel, a couple of more flights, a few more days on the road. But other than the chance of a few flurries on Monday, at least there’s no snow in the Indianapolis forecast.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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