Monday, Nov. 23, 2009 | 2:10 a.m.
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Las Vegas Sun reporters Rob Miech and Ray Brewer dissect the UNLV basketball team's 78-69 victory on Saturday against Southern Illinois. Tre'Von Willis had a career high 25 points and appears to be the Rebels' team leader.
Give it four more months, at least, and maybe UNLV basketball coach Lon Kruger will enjoy hearing such news … and believe it.
Before he and his staff met with their players in their usual Sunday night academic meetings and team meal, Kruger chuckled just a bit about the Rebels leading the nation in Ratings Percentage Index.
They were ahead of Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, Texas and North Carolina, and every other elite team in the land.
The RPI is one of about a dozen elements the NCAA tournament selection committee uses to pick about half, and place all, of its field of 65 teams in the middle of March.
After UNLV’s victory over Southern Illinois on Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack Center, the Rebels woke up Sunday knotted with DePaul at the top of the country’s RPI charts.
With matching strength of schedules rated at .8611, UNLV and DePaul both were 2-0 (against Division-I foes) and had an RPI of .8958 when the sun came up Sunday.
(The Rebels’ season-opening victory over D-II Pittsburg State doesn’t count in the statistic.)
LSU (3-0) was third at .8137, and Cal State Fullerton (1-0) and Duke (4-0) were tied at fourth at .8125.
“That’s a tidbit I wouldn’t have imagined,” Kruger said. “But it’s early in the year. Those don’t mean too much. Can’t think too much of it either way.”
UNLV vs. DePaul for it all come April 5 in the NCAA championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis?
Maybe that’s farfetched, because DePaul lost Sunday at No. 11 Tennessee. By the time you’re eating your bacon and eggs and reading this, UNLV could be alone in first.
For now, however, it’ll bring some attention to the Mountain West Conference, which has complained that is has deserved more NCAA teams in recent years.
As far as Kruger and his Rebels are concerned, there’s work to be done. Rankings and ratings don’t figure to affect how Kruger runs practice this afternoon.
“Those were great games for us, from the standpoint of getting in the right column and still learning a lot from each one,” Kruger said. “In each, I thought we made strides.
“(But) there are a lot good moments to improve on.”
The Rebels, who beat UNR on Wednesday, turned around a 12-point deficit to take a lead in the first half Saturday against the Salukis only to trail going into the half.
UNLV and SIU exchanged punches in the second half until junior guard Kendall Wallace gave the Rebels the lead for good, at 59-56, midway through the second half.
By the time sophomore forward Chace Stanback hit a jumper along the left baseline with 4 1/2 minutes left, the Rebels had a 72-60 advantage.
Then UNLV offered up a host of issues for Kruger to address.
The Rebels turned it over, Matt Shaw missed a 3-point shot, sloppy ball handling turned into scrums on the floor, and Stanback and Derrick Jasper missed the front ends of one-and-one free-throw situations.
SIU crept to within five points, at 74-69, inside the final 90 seconds and had the ball. But the young and inexperienced Salukis fell apart at the end.
Kruger’s message to his players Sunday was similar to the one he always preaches – make progress each day.
“That’s a huge focus for the next few weeks,” Kruger said. “We have to continue to think about being a more physical team, that’s why SIU was such a good matchup for us.
“They had big guys on the inside and their guards were quick. That was good for us.”
The final few minutes won’t make the UNLV season highlight tape.
“We talk about the significance of each possession late in the game,” Kruger said. “We didn’t handle that as well as we should, but it was our first time in that situation.
“It was a good opportunity to learn from that. Late-game situations are hard to simulate in practice. You can’t put that environment and atmosphere into practice. It was good to go through that and learn from it.”
Monday afternoon, UNLV players can expect to see some action from Saturday night in their review with Kruger and his assistants. Don’t expect it to include much from the first 36 minutes.
“They’ll see the need to be stronger with the ball late,” Kruger said, “and to make good decisions.”
Los Angeles Westchester forward Dwayne Polee, whose father Dwayne Sr. played for the Rebels in 1981-82, is close to securing an official visit to UNLV this weekend. The Rebels play Louisville on Saturday afternoon. Sources indicated that that likely will take place, but it wasn’t completely certain as of Sunday night … Louisville improved to 3-0 on Sunday with a 90-81 victory over Morgan State … Holy Cross, which plays at the Mack on Wednesday night, lost Sunday at Rhode Island, 92-75, dropping to 0-4. Devin Brown, a 6-foot-1 sophomore guard from Maryland, leads five Crusaders double-digit scorers with a 15-point average.