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Surging Rebels ‘still in the fight’ for Mountain West tournament bye

He doesn’t talk with players about standings, about jockeying for position among other Mountain West men’s basketball teams, about the importance of finishing in the top five and earning a first-round bye in the conference tournament.

Kevin Kruger knows how tight the race is. The last thing you want is to start looking ahead.

UNLV continues league play Saturday when it hosts No. 22 Colorado State at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Rebels have won six of seven and are playing some of the season’s best basketball at the most significant of times.

“When you talk about the number of teams, the conference is the best it has ever been and is on a great trajectory,” Kruger said. “A handful of teams are still in the fight going into the last handful of games, which is what makes it that much more entertaining and important every night.”

The Rebels (15-10, 8-5) are squarely in that logjam, sitting 1½ games back of first-place Utah State and yet still behind five others. If the conference tournament began today, they would be a No. 6 seed and play in the opening round.

Earning one of those top-five seeds means having to win just three games in three days to clinch a conference tournament title and automatic NCAA berth. The other avenue is having to win four games in four days. The other avenue is much tougher. Right?

“In tournament time, it’s much more about matchups,” Kruger said, “That and game time. You don’t want to play a game that gets out at midnight. You want as much rest as you can possibly get.

“We’ve seen both sides of it. We’ve seen the teams that have a bye and it doesn’t work to their advantage. The team that played the night before comes out with a different step and fight. We’ve also seen those teams have a big emotional victory the night before and come out flat. In this conference, while the bye is nice to have, it’s much more about the matchups.”

His team has a doozy of one Saturday.

Colorado State (20-7, 8-6) is led by fifth-year senior guard Isaiah Stevens and his conference accolades that are, in some instances, beyond compare.

He’s averaging 16.3 points and 7.4 assists this season and is one of the finest players in Mountain West history — not of the overall talent when talking the likes of NBA stars Kawhi Leonard (San Diego State) and Paul George (Fresno State), but for what Stevens has done in league play throughout his time with the Rams.

An annual all-conference performer, he is a former Freshman of the Year.

“An unbelievable career,” Kruger said. “Incredibly dangerous. As good as he is, as good as he makes everyone around him, it will be tough. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who has had a bigger impact than Isaiah Stevens, in my opinion.”

Kruger might not follow the league standings closely, but his players do. They know who is where. Keylan Boone is a fifth-year senior who understands his time as a college player is dwindling. Feels sad in a way. Excited in another.

“We’re seeing movement in the league, and it’s heading in our direction, which is good,” Boone said. “We just need to handle our business, and we can keep moving up. Just trying to be a contender.

“We’ve seen every team. We have a great feel for them, and they have a great feel for us. It’s all about adjusting. It’s exciting. It’s a great league.”

Maybe the best it has ever been.

Contact Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com. Follow @edgraney on X.

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