Rebels’ NCAA credentials lacking

It’s a constant buzz that begins in January and becomes deafening in early March. As unavoidable as it might seem, Lon Kruger claims he tunes out the noise.

How much time does the UNLV basketball coach set aside for the analysis, guesswork, math and research that goes into projecting the NCAA Tournament brackets?

“I spend none,” Kruger said. “From a fan’s perspective, it’s encouraging and interesting, and that’s great. But we don’t spend time worrying about that.”

Kruger spent Thursday working to solve other mysteries, such as how to get productivity out of the Rebels’ stagnant offense. If he can’t find that answer, debating the NCAA Tournament is moot.

UNLV, 21-8 overall and fifth in the Mountain West Conference at 9-6, wraps up the regular season at fourth-place San Diego State (20-8, 10-5) at 7 p.m. Saturday.

After escaping with an unimpressive 46-43 victory over Air Force on Wednesday, the Rebels sit on the NCAA bubble, and they will stay there through next week’s MWC tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center.

“We only talk about how we need to win one more,” Kruger said. “Obviously the safest way is to win four more, but we have to do that one at a time. We don’t talk about if we need 22 wins or 24 wins or 26 wins.”

All things considered, if there is a magic number for UNLV, it’s probably 24.

The Rebels could lose to the Aztecs on Saturday and still reach the NCAA’s 65-team field. But that scenario probably would require winning three games in the conference tournament to gain the MWC’s automatic bid.

With a win at San Diego State, two wins next week and a loss in the MWC championship game, UNLV would be looking good.

In each scenario, the Rebels would reach 24 wins. But with anything less, they could be relegated to the National Invitation Tournament.

Joe Lunardi, the “Bracketology” expert for ESPN.com, said the Mountain West “most likely” will get three teams in the NCAA Tournament.

Brigham Young (23-6, 11-4), New Mexico (20-10, 11-4) and Utah (20-9, 11-4) are tied for first.

“I think Utah and BYU will make it,” said Lunardi, who included UNLV as the third team, as a No. 9 seed, in his most recent bracket.

“Not many teams can say they won at Louisville without their best player (senior guard Wink Adams, who was injured). I just think UNLV is pretty good.”

The highlight of the Rebels’ postseason resume is their 56-55 upset victory over now-No. 6 Louisville at Freedom Hall on Dec. 31. UNLV also beat Arizona, swept BYU and split with Utah.

On the flip side, the Rebels split with lightweights Colorado State and Texas Christian. But in UNLV’s case, Lunardi said, the big wins mean more than the bad losses.

In the Ratings Percentage Index, one of many factors the NCAA Tournament selection committee takes into account, the Rebels rank 50th — trailing Utah (10), BYU (18) and San Diego State (46) and ahead of New Mexico (63).

San Diego State represents a hurdle that UNLV must clear, especially if the teams meet again in the quarterfinals of the MWC tournament.

The Aztecs own no quality nonconference wins, but they did upset the Rebels 68-66 in overtime Feb. 3.

“We’ve been very inconsistent,” Kruger said. “We’ve lost games that you can’t afford to lose if you’re going to be in the hunt for a conference championship, and we’re not there.”

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

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