Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012 | 2 a.m.
- Las Vegas-centric heady distractions unify UNLV student section
- Rebels enter final week of regular season ranked No. 17 in both polls
- Back atop the conference, UNLV tries to focus on itself rather than league and NCAA seeding
- Ugly scenario sparks Rebels basketball in easy victory against Air Force
- Chace Stanback nears top 20 on career scoring list
- 2011-12 UNLV Men's Basketball Schedule
- All UNLV Men's Basketball Coverage
The next plane UNLV boards will be the last one it takes home from a road game this season. In conference play especially, those have been some frustrating trips filled with thoughts of near-misses and blown opportunities.
The Rebels’ last chance to break that trend comes tonight at 7:15 in Moby Arena, where Colorado State hasn’t lost since Nov. 19.
Colorado State (17-10, 6-6) hosts No. 17 UNLV (24-6, 8-4) on CBS College Sports in a battle of two teams currently ranked in the top 15 in the country for home-court winning streaks. The Rebels, who rank 11th with 15 straight home wins, will need to conjure up some of that Thomas & Mack magic to take down the Rams, who rank 14th with 12 in a row.
Colorado State’s streak includes a perfect 6-0 conference mark that was capped by a 71-63 victory against New Mexico last week. Entering that game, the Lobos had a two-game conference lead with four to play. Two road losses later and the Lobos find themselves in a three-way tie for first with UNLV and San Diego State.
“We’re in a good spot,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said, “but (tonight) will be a difficult challenge to say the least.”
The top five teams in the league are a combined 28-2 at home in conference season. The Rebels have felt the brunt of that stat, going more than a month without a road conference victory (The last road victory was a 65-63 win in overtime at Air Force on Jan. 28).
Last week’s pair of home victories got UNLV feeling good about itself again, particularly on defense. The Rebels gave up 58 points in each game, which is just more than half of what they gave up in a 102-97 overtime loss at TCU on Feb. 14.
That game is a lesson about closing out opponents, but tonight’s game will more closely resemble the battle for first place at New Mexico on Feb. 18. The Rams are playing for an outside shot at the regular-season title, for conference-tournament seeding and, most importantly, for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Moby Arena isn’t The Pit, but CSU fans know what’s at stake, and they will make the environment as difficult as possible.
“Coach (Tim) Miles has built a solid program,” Rice said. “We know the energy that they will bring (tonight) because of what it means for their NCAA Tournament potential.”
The Rams’ hopes looked bleak after a one-point loss at Boise State on Feb. 15, but now they’re in a position where they can probably play themselves in with a victory against UNLV and another good win in the Mountain West tournament. And while this is Colorado State’s Senior Night, the stage belongs to its juniors.
The Rams’ top four scorers are all juniors, including leading scorer Wes Eikmeier (15.9 points per game), who finished with 18 in an 82-63 loss at the Mack on Feb. 1. That game was a bit closer than the score indicates, but for the most part the Rebels controlled the action. The ultimate difference, as is often the case in UNLV victories, was the Rebels’ ability to work together to play swarming defense that turned into instant offense.
UNLV's best hopes of recapturing that style rests with senior small forward Chace Stanback, who excelled in both victories last week, and sophomore forward Mike Moser, who's been struggling a bit recently but is still the Rebels' most explosive player. That's where the momentum likely has to start. To come home with a victory, it's got to go far beyond that.
“Not one man is going to get it done by himself,” junior guard Anthony Marshall said. “It’s going to take a collective group.”
Marshall said just one or two guys playing well, as has been the case in most of the Rebels’ road games, isn’t going to be enough at Colorado State. The Rams rank among the national leaders in 3-point percentage (sixth, 41 percent), free-throw percentage (sixth, 76.7 percent) and field-goal percentage (26th, 47.5 percent). Much like the Rebels, they often have four players on the court who can shoot from the perimeter.
When talking about this game, Rice used the term “big deal” a few times, but he also doesn’t want to take that too far. UNLV isn’t playing for its NCAA Tournament life, like Colorado State is.
This is more of a personal quest to get just one more road victory, and if they can, to do it in decisive fashion. This is yet another chance at first place. Another chance to go the Denver International Airport with a win.
“I don’t think we want to make it more than it is,” Rice said. “It’s a big deal, but it’s one game, albeit a game that means a lot because of where we are in the conference race.”