It’s almost time to rip the February page off the calendar and look ahead to March, so UNLV basketball coach Lon Kruger is ready to join the discussions on the NCAA Tournament.
Of course, the debates about who’s in and who’s out of the 65-team field have been going on for weeks, almost since Christmas.
“It seems like it’s starting earlier every year, and this year, they started ‘Bracketology’ stuff in January,” Kruger said. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Kruger is not a coaching Scrooge, and he acknowledges the tournament talk is a form of “meaningless” entertainment. But now, every game begins to mean a little more.
The Rebels, 21-6 overall and 10-3 in the Mountain West Conference, next play Texas Christian (14-12, 6-7) at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The Mountain West gained at least two NCAA bids in seven of the previous eight years. So UNLV is sitting in good position at second place in the conference with three games to go, with only an outside chance of running down first-place Brigham Young (22-6, 11-2).
Third-place New Mexico (22-7, 9-5) is on the NCAA bubble, and fourth-place San Diego State (18-10, 8-6) likely needs to win the Mountain West tournament to get the automatic bid.
“I think there are three or four teams in contention right now for an opportunity, whether it be the bubble or whatever,” Kruger said. “It really depends on how the teams finish.
“It could be a situation where if two teams are deserving of at-large (bids) and a third one wins the conference tournament, then maybe those two teams are strong enough with at-large resumes that we might get a third.”
BYU is in the best position. The Cougars will be favored to win their final three games — at home against Air Force and Wyoming and on the road against TCU.
Every Mountain West regular-season champion, shared or outright, has gone to the NCAA Tournament, with the exception of the 2000-01 season. BYU, Utah and Wyoming were tri-champions that season, and BYU was the only team to go to the NCAAs.
The Mountain West received a high of three bids in three years — 2002, 2003 and 2004.
“If the season ended right now, it would be BYU, the winner, and UNLV, who’s in second place,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “That being said, New Mexico is playing as good as anybody in our league.”
The Lobos, off a 70-69 overtime loss to the Cougars, host the Rebels on Tuesday in Albuquerque, N.M. New Mexico and UNLV might play a third time in the conference tournament, March 12 to 15 in Las Vegas. The Rebels routed the Lobos 79-60 on Feb. 2.
In his most recent “Bracketology” forecast on ESPN.com, Joe Lunardi projected BYU as a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament, with UNLV a No. 10 and New Mexico a No. 12.
In the Ratings Percentage Index, the Cougars rank 23rd in the nation and the Rebels 29th, followed by the Lobos (54) and Aztecs (68).
“I don’t even know how they calculate the RPI,” UNLV senior guard Curtis Terry said. “It’s just a number, and I know it’s good to have it low. Ours is kind of low right now, so that’s a good thing.
“I think the way BYU and New Mexico are playing right now, they both definitely have a good chance, and we also have a good chance. Now, it’s almost March, so you can technically talk about it.”
The Mountain West tournament has been in Las Vegas five times, and the Rebels won it in 2000 and 2007.
• NOTE — Kruger had heart bypass surgery at St. Rose Hospital on Aug. 2, and UNLV is offering St. Rose’s 3,005 employees and their immediate family free tickets to Saturday’s game.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or (702) 387-2907.