March is getting close.
That means even if there isn’t outright scoreboard watching and Mountain West standings monitoring, there is reason enough to peek at how it’s all shaking out.
Two games went UNLV’s way this week to help the Rebels — one completely out of their control and one fully within their grasp. New Mexico beat San Diego State 83-70 on Tuesday, and a night later UNLV won 83-72 at Boise State.
So entering Saturday’s 2 p.m. game against third-place Fresno State (16-6, 7-3 MW) at the Thomas & Mack Center, UNLV (12-10, 6-4) sits in fourth place. San Diego State (13-9, 5-4) is fifth and Boise State (10-13, 5-5) sixth.
Not that the Rebels are going to shoot up the standings and challenge UNR and Utah State for the regular-season title, but if they finish in the top five, they will avoid the first-day play-in games of next month’s conference tournament at the T&M. UNLV has not achieved a bye into the quarterfinals in five years.
The difference is trying to win three games in three days compared with four in four.
“You definitely want a bye in the tournament,” UNLV guard Noah Robotham said. “That’s big for us. I came from a conference (Mid-American) where you’ve got to win three games in three days, and that’s a hard thing to do. So if we’re going to put ourselves in position to get a bye on that first day, I think that would help us in the long run.”
UNLV went 3-4 over the past four seasons in the tournament and did not advance past the quarterfinals.
The Rebels could take momentum into the game against Fresno State, which will be streamed on ESPN3. They ended a three-game losing streak, each by 17 points, with the victory at Boise State.
Rebels coach Marvin Menzies is usually loath to say one game affects another, but he hopes to build on that victory.
“That’s kind of the mentality of winning the conference is protect the home court and steal as many as you can on the road,” Menzies said. “It’s so difficult to win on the road, so I was very pleased with the victory, but I think the momentum is what we’re trying to do as a program anyway. We’re just trying to get better. We’re trying to show progress.
“We’re trying to become champions. Not next year. We’re trying to become champions this year, and that’s our goal.”
A UNLV victory would be another step in a tight race. Seven teams are within three games of one another in the battle for the top five.
UNLV also was in the mix last season before closing the regular season with five consecutive losses to drop to the No. 8 seed. The Rebels survived overtime to beat No. 9 Air Force 97-90, then lost 79-74 to top-seeded UNR in the quarterfinals.
“It definitely put us in a tough position that we had to play Air Force and then we had to play the No. 1 team in the conference, which is Reno, for the second game,” Rebels guard Amauri Hardy said. “If we can handle our work earlier, that will probably make it a lot easier for us in conference because eventually we would end up seeing the team in the conference championship anyway. But it would be better to see them later than earlier.”
Who: Fresno State at UNLV
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Thomas & Mack Center
TV/Radio: ESPN3 (online stream); KWWN (1100 AM, 100.9 FM)
Line: Fresno State -1; total 148
Fresno State (16-6, 7-3 MW)
Coach: Justin Hutson (16-6, first season)
Player Pos Hgt Ppg
New Williams G 6-1 9.6
Braxton Huggins G 6-4 18.1
Deshon Taylor G 6-2 16.2
Sam Bittner G 6-6 7.3
Nate Grimes F 6-8 12.2
UNLV (12-10, 6-4 MW)
Coach: Marvin Menzies (43-44, third season)
Player Pos Hgt Ppg
Noah Robotham G 6-1 8.4
Amauri Hardy G 6-2 12.8
Kris Clyburn G 6-6 13.7
Joel Ntambwe F 6-9 12.4
Mbacke Diong F 6-11 6.3