UNLV basketball coach Lon Kruger is tired of hearing about how his team appears to be exhausted.
"I don’t believe that," Kruger said Sunday, a day after the Rebels finished the regular season with a 70-63 victory over Utah at the Thomas & Mack Center.
"I think all teams are a little bit tired right now. This is a tough grind. But this time of year kind of makes you forget all about fatigue."
Kruger is not one to make excuses, but he doesn’t need any, either. As he pointed out, UNLV won four of its last five games and is "not limping home."
The best news for the Rebels, 23-7 overall and 12-4 in the Mountain West Conference, is they get to stay home for the league tournament.
Second-seeded UNLV opens against seventh-seeded Texas Christian (14-15, 6-10) at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Thomas & Mack, where the Rebels have won 21 consecutive games against conference opponents.
UNLV won the Mountain West tournament last year, beating Brigham Young 78-70 in the championship game, and earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Cougars (25-6, 14-2) might be considered slight favorites over the Rebels going into this week’s tournament.
If the seedings hold up, Friday’s semifinals could be intriguing. Barring upsets, BYU will play fourth-seeded San Diego State (19-11, 9-7) and UNLV will play third-seeded New Mexico (24-7, 11-5).
Kruger has been fielding questions about his team’s fatigue factor since the Rebels’ 59-45 loss at New Mexico last Tuesday.
Kruger’s roster lacks depth and size. The tallest starter is 6-foot-7-inch junior Joe Darger, who appears to be wearing down while defending bigger players in the low post. Kruger is using eight players, but sophomore forward Matt Shaw has been the only regular contributor off the bench.
Senior point guard Curtis Terry saved UNLV on Saturday by recording 22 points, 10 assists and five rebounds against Utah.
But Terry also committed six turnovers, and the Rebels’ offense was out of sync most of the game. Terry constantly dribbled around the perimeter while his teammates too often stood and watched his audition for the Globetrotters.
"To be able to knock down some shots after I haven’t hit any for a while, that definitely got my confidence higher," said Terry, who ended a slump by shooting 7-for-12 and making four 3-pointers. He had scored in double figures just once in the previous 10 games.
BYU, 21st in the nation in the Ratings Percentage Index, is a virtual lock to make the NCAA’s 65-team field.
The Rebels are in better shape than the Lobos, but both teams probably have a little work to do before Selection Sunday. UNLV has an RPI of 29 and a schedule strength that ranks 71st. New Mexico is 53rd in RPI with a poor schedule strength that ranks 150th.
The Mountain West is widely projected to be a three-bid league. But neither the Rebels nor the Lobos will feel secure on Sunday unless they reach Saturday’s title game.
"If we win three games this week, then we’re in and we don’t have to worry about it," Terry said. "Maybe we can seal the deal up ourselves."
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or (702) 387-2907.MWC TOURNAMENT Thomas & Mack Center Wednesday Play-in game Colorado State (9) vs. Wyoming (8), 11 a.m. Thursday Quarterfinals • Brigham Young (1) vs. Colorado State-Wyoming winner, noon • Air Force (5) vs. San Diego State (4), 2:30 p.m. • Texas Christian (7) vs. UNLV (2), 6 p.m. • Utah (6) vs. New Mexico (3), 8:30 p.m.