Runnin' Rebel Rant: Vol. 4
For the past couple of years, it has been noted that Lon Kruger's UNLV teams play their very best basketball toward the end of the season; this statement always seems right. Two years ago, the team had about the same record at this point in the season and then made an incredible run that took them to the Sweet 16. Last year, during this point in the season, the squad posted the same number of losses and added one more right before the conference tourney and made it into the NCAA tourney's second round. It seems that every time UNLV's back is against the wall, the team pulls through and shows their most cohesive, confident play with only a few games remaining in their season.
This year's team may be no exception. Saturday's performance against CSU showed a Rebel team quite different than fans viewed all season long. They appeared energetic, alert, and finally, consistent! Shots fell, strong defensive moves were made, and the victory came in quality double digits. Sure, UNLV's opponent was not great, but the Rebels had to prove that they could easily win on their home court, and win...period. After two over time losses that will still linger for the remainder of the season, the Rebs came together and proved to their fans and to themselves that they are still in the race for the regular season championship.
A far cry from the booing heard when they played TCU, the Rebels finally looked like a team that could thrive in the NCAA tourney. However, as the question has been as of late, have they realized their potential too late? Utah is only a couple games away from locking the regular season championship and a few teams nip at their heels. The Rebs are one team among several excellent MWC squads and no match-up from here on out will be "easy."
UNLV's first test this week comes at Wyoming. There is no doubt that UNLV MUST win this game. True, Brandon Ewing seeks a victory in his final season at home, but UNLV must stop his eager attempts for the win. The Rebels must win in this road contest because, well, they cannot afford to lose. The only "acceptable" road losses remaining would be at Utah or at SDSU (one of which the Rebels MUST win). Further, the Rebels need a "W" on Wednesday to move into their marquee match-up vs. BYU this Saturday.
This week, especially on Saturday, ESPN features their annual Bracketbusters. The MWC does not fall into the Bracketbusters category because of their awkward status as neither a mid or high major. Therefore, BYU and UNLV is the bracketbuster for the Mountain West, although it will not be shown on ESPN. In the beginning of the season, these two squads were the decided competitors for the MWC crown (as they have been in the past 2 seasons). Yet, the past few months have created new consequences for the winner of Saturday's big game. If UNLV can beat BYU at home, they sweep the regular season series and provide themselves some legroom heading into the remainder of the season. In the unthinkable (yet, possible) situation that BYU wins at the Thomas and Mack, UNLV will truly face some major obstacles with the conference schedule that remains (including SDSU and Utah, away).
This week will be one of the biggest and most important weeks of this year's squad. If the Rebels play like they did on Saturday, UNLV will have no problem at all at Wyoming and could certainly take a victory over BYU on Saturday. Tre'Von Willis continues to show composure and added offensive artillery. While each of the seniors (including bench player Mo Rutledge) adds not only leadership but hustle, energy, and a sense of urgency that has been visibly lacking since the win at Louisville.
The Rebs can still win the MWC race; although they must certainly be hoping that they can catch a little luck and Utah will suffer a couple losses in the meantime. Again, I rarely ask Rebel fans to attend games at the Thomas and Mack (mainly because I know they will be there), but if you were not already planning on being at the T and M on Saturday for the BYU/UNLV match-up, try to make it! It is going to be a battle. BYU has not won at the Thomas and Mack in nearly 3 years and this fact will surely give BYU senior guard Lee Cummard a reason to come out of Las Vegas with a win. Yet, UNLV's seniors and an ever-improving Rebel team will surely keep BYU on their toes. Hopefully, the Rebs can come out Saturday night with a big win to add to their resume...but let's just hope for the win at Wyoming first.