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Can UNLV make a real run at the Mountain West tournament?

Updated March 3, 2020 - 5:24 pm

The question a month ago would’ve been ridiculous.

Does UNLV have a legitimate chance to win the Mountain West tournament?

The Rebels still would be considered long shots, especially given the uncertainty over guard Elijah Mitrou-Long’s knee injury. But that question no longer can be laughed off.

UNLV (17-14) takes a five-game winning streak into the conference tournament, which begins Wednesday at the Thomas & Mack Center. The fourth-seeded Rebels’ first game is at 2 p.m. Thursday against No. 5 Boise State (19-11).

T.J. Otzelberger on Tuesday stuck to the typical coach’s script, saying the Rebels were focused only on Boise State and not the tournament at large. Two of his players, Marvin Coleman and Nick Blair, echoed that sentiment.

Guard Amauri Hardy said the team can’t get ahead of itself, but he did note the big picture.

“Miracles happen,” Hardy said. “It’s March. I’m a man of miracles, and why not us? It would be phenomenal to make it to March Madness. I’ve never done it, and it’s been a while since this program has been there.”

UNLV last made the NCAA Tournament seven years ago and last won the Mountain West tournament, which earns an automatic NCAA bid, 12 years ago.

The Rebels’ turnaround this season has been startling.

They had just lost four in a row in the middle of conference play to drop to 11-13. Though one of the losses was a four-point defeat to San Diego State, which is ranked fifth nationally, there was little to suggest UNLV was on the verge of a late surge.

After splitting the next two games, however, the Rebels won at New Mexico 78-73, blew out Colorado State 80-56, handed San Diego State its only loss at 66-63, took a 27-point lead over Boise State before winning 76-66, and won 92-69 at San Jose State.

“It gives us a little bit of momentum,” Coleman said. “We’re playing the right way and playing the way we need to late in the season. That’s the ultimate goal to be playing good basketball at the end of the season.”

Otzelberger pointed out UNLV’s defensive effort, which held four of those five opponents to fewer than 70 points.

“If our team can have that defensive mindset, focus, effort and energy, we can be really good,” Otzelberger said. “That’s what we need to continue being. The way that we got to be good is we worked really hard every day, got up the next day and worked really hard again. That’s what we’re continuing to instill here each day is we haven’t played our best yet. Our best is still in front of us. As a coach, I’m excited to see what that is, if we’re able to bring it out.”

Can UNLV really make a run at the Mountain West tournament title?

If the Rebels beat Boise State, they most likely would face San Diego State in the semifinals. It’s not the easiest path, but the Rebels have proven what they can do against the Aztecs.

Get to the championship game and anything can happen.

UNLV can’t be considered the favorite, but the idea of the Rebels winning the title isn’t so laughable anymore.

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.

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