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UNLV seen as 5 or 6 seed for NCAA Tournament

On a Sunday afternoon in mid-March, coach Dave Rice will see where UNLV fits into the NCAA Tournament picture. Until then, he won’t sneak many peeks at the projections.

As of today, the Rebels are either a No. 5 or 6 seed facing either Belmont or Kentucky, with Salt Lake City and San Jose, Calif., being the most likely sites.

“It changes by the minute,” Rice said.

By Monday, the various new bracket projections — commonly known as “Bracketology” — could be different, being that it’s educated guesswork. So, obviously, Rice is not watching film of the defending national champion Wildcats and preparing to match wits with John Calipari. That would be a waste of time.

But Rice does spend a little time studying the Ratings Percentage Index, just to see where UNLV might fit into the picture.

The Rebels (21-7, 8-5 Mountain West) have pieced together a resume that puts them safely in the 68-team field as of today, with a No. 16 rating in the RPI and strength of schedule that ranks 11th nationally.

“I look at our RPI and our strength of schedule almost daily,” Rice said. “I don’t look at the Bracketology stuff as much.”

Here’s a look where UNLV stands in four bracket forecasts:

■ Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com and Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com each project the Rebels as a No. 5 seed opposite No. 12 Belmont in San Jose.

■ Andy Glockner of SI.com and Bruce Marshall of The Gold Sheet each slot UNLV at No. 6 against No. 11 Kentucky. Glockner has the Rebels opening in Salt Lake City; Marshall is guessing Kansas City, Mo.

“To me, it really doesn’t matter,” said senior guard Anthony Marshall, who is 0-3 in the NCAA Tournament. “The last three years, we’ve been in pretty good spots, and we haven’t won yet, so I really don’t look at it.”

Two weeks ago, after a 71-56 loss at Air Force, UNLV was not in a good spot. The Rebels were getting ripped while they were falling 24 points behind the Falcons.

Dan Wolken of USA Today went to Twitter to state: “If UNLV gets better than a 10 seed it’s a disgrace. Air Force is running them off the floor.”

Since then, the Rebels have reeled off victories over San Diego State, Colorado State and Wyoming to pad a resume that includes a win against New Mexico, the conference leader. The Lobos rank No. 3 in the RPI, which shows the Mountain West as the nation’s second-ranked league.

UNLV, which is 12-6 against RPI top-100 teams, swept two games from the Aztecs and owns quality nonconference wins over Iowa State and at California.

The Rebels can’t erase their worst loss — at Fresno State, No. 161 in the RPI — but they can finish strong and improve their road record (5-6), important factors in the NCAA selection committee’s evaluation process.

“UNLV still has not done, especially in league play, enough on the road,” said Glockner, who projects New Mexico as a No. 2 seed. “The overall conference is so strong, that’s going to help. The thing to watch on Selection Sunday is you want to see what kind of respect the committee gives New Mexico.

“There is a lot of talent on the roster, and it has taken Dave Rice a while to figure out the right rotations. I think UNLV is playing better basketball. But I’m not going to take too much away from them beating San Diego State by two at home and beating Colorado State by two at home.”

The Rebels will be favorites in their final three regular-season games — at UNR (12-15, 3-10) on Saturday and home against Boise State and Fresno State next week — prior to the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas.

“I think we’re getting better, and we’ve played our best and most consistent basketball of the season in the last three games,” Rice said. “But by no means do we think we have arrived.”

■ NOTE — Rice said freshman forward Anthony Bennett is “probable” to play Saturday. Bennett, UNLV’s leading scorer at 17.0 points per game, has nerve inflammation in his neck and left shoulder. Rice said Bennett, whose activity at Wednesday’s practice was limited to running and shooting on the side, will be evaluated again today.

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.

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