Rebels get at-large NCAA berth; will play Illinois on Friday in Tulsa, Okla.

As players cheered and cheerleaders danced, many fans and local media members looked on incredulously while UNLV coach Lon Kruger smiled and prepared comments made with a positive spin.

The unveiling of the NCAA Tournament brackets on television is a hyped tradition known as Selection Sunday to the college basketball world.

It’s also beginning to feel a lot like "Groundhog Day" for the Rebels, who were assigned the same seed (No. 8) in the same four-team bracket with top-seeded Kansas in a similarly dull Midwestern city for the third time in four years.

UNLV (24-8) opens play against No. 9 seed Illinois (19-13) at 6:20 p.m. Friday in the Southwest Region at Tulsa, Okla.

"Anytime you see your name announced up there, you feel good," Kruger said at the party inside Cox Pavilion.

There were plenty of reasons for the Rebels to celebrate their at-large invitation to the 68-team field. And while Kruger did admit he thought his team might have deserved a better seed, he refused to dwell on any negatives, and his players followed the theme.

"We just feel fortunate to be in the tournament," junior forward Chace Stanback said.

Stanback and sophomore guard Anthony Marshall were part of last year’s team that was a No. 8 seed in Oklahoma City. UNLV lost its first-round game 69-66 to Northern Iowa, which pulled off a stunning upset of Kansas in the second round.

If the Rebels advance past Illinois, the Jayhawks (32-2) likely will be waiting in the next round. So the odds are stacked against UNLV surviving the first weekend.

"I’m not disappointed at all," Marshall said. "We’re very excited to be in the tournament. We worked hard to get here."

In 2008, the Rebels were a No. 8 seed in Omaha, Neb., where they defeated Kent State 71-58 before getting pounded by Kansas 75-56 in the second round.

UNLV sophomore forward Quintrell Thomas said this NCAA Tournament draw had a sense of déjà vu.

"It’s almost ironic that you don’t even have to watch the selection show to know where you’re going to be," Thomas said. "It was interesting to see certain seeds that teams got when I didn’t think they were necessarily deserving, and then to see that we got the 8-9 (seeds’) game again.

"But one thing I like to say is things could be better, but they could always be worse. We couldn’t be in at all, so we should appreciate it."

The Rebels’ six-game winning streak was stopped Friday night with a 74-72 loss to No. 7-ranked San Diego State in the Mountain West Conference tournament semifinals at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The Aztecs won the championship by blowing out No. 8 Brigham Young 72-54 on Saturday. San Diego State, a No. 2 seed in the West Region, plays Northern Colorado on Thursday at Tucson, Ariz.

BYU, a No. 3 seed in the Southeast Region, opens against Wofford on Thursday at Denver.

Of UNLV’s eight losses, five were to the Aztecs and Cougars, and it also was defeated by NCAA Tournament participants Louisville and UC Santa Barbara.

Projections didn’t pan out

Most bracket projections had the Rebels slotted to receive a No. 6 or No. 7 seed, and Kruger was hopeful his team would get that type of respect from the NCAA selection committee.

"We had a strong finish, we were playing really good basketball late, and we had no real bad losses when you consider everyone we lost to is playing in the NCAA Tournament, with the exception of Colorado State," Kruger said. "But I don’t have time to worry about that too much."

At Las Vegas sports books, UNLV opened as a 1½ -point favorite over Illinois, which finished in a four-way tie for fourth in the Big Ten.

Kruger, who coached the Fighting Illini from 1996 to 2000, resisted the temptation of looking beyond the Rebels’ opening game.

"Kansas is certainly very tough, but we’re not concerned at all about that," he said. "We hope to have the opportunity to play Kansas because, of course, that would mean we win the first one, so we’ve got to take care of that."

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907.

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