Monday, March 12, 2012 | 2 a.m.
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Las Vegas Sun reporters Taylor Bern and Ray Brewer take a look at the UNLV basketball team's opening round opponent in the NCAA Tournament — Pac-12 tournament champions Colorado.
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The Rebels' feelings as they took their seats Sunday at the Mack to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show mirrored those of the fans in attendance and those watching at home.
Some, like sophomore forward Mike Moser, were pessimistic after high hopes in recent years turned into trips to the 8 vs. 9 game.
“I was probably thinking kind of negatively about it,” Moser said, “just planning for the worst.”
Others just took their seats and hoped for the best. And nobody had to wait long for the answer.
With the top overall seed Kentucky in their bracket, UNLV is the 6 seed in the South region, playing Thursday in Albuquerque at about 7 p.m. on truTV (Cox channel 54) against 11-seed Colorado. The Rebels would potentially play the winner of 3-seed Baylor vs. 14-seed South Dakota State.
It was the first region that CBS unveiled and it elicited a chorus of cheers in the Mack, where just two days earlier UNLV had lost to New Mexico in the Mountain West tournament semifinals.
While Moser braced himself for bad things, senior guard Oscar Bellfield went in confident that he wouldn’t leave disappointed a third straight time.
“Oscar was like ‘I think we’re going to get a 6,’ ” junior guard Anthony Marshall said. “… Maybe he should make predictions more often.”
Not only did UNLV get a 6, which was the best they could do based on projections from across the nation, but the Rebels are going to a familiar arena that’s also the closest possible destination for fans.
“Albuquerque would have been our first choice,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.
Added Moser, “We’re just so excited it’s in a place where fans can travel there.”
All in all, the afternoon went better than most Rebels and their fans could have reasonably hoped for. It’s the highest seed since the 1990-91 team notched a 1 seed and lost to Duke in the Final Four and this year’s draw doesn’t look devastating.
“It was a big weight off our shoulders,” Moser said. “We’ve been wanting to play and know where we’re going to be since we lost Friday. Now that all that is determined and set in stone, I think we can concentrate on the next go.”
That starts with Colorado, which had no shot at the tournament until it won four games in the Pac-12 tournament to take the automatic bid. The Buffaloes finished the regular season on a 3-4 stretch and earlier this season lost at home to Wyoming by 11, but the Rebels are more concerned with Colorado’s four-game winning streak.
“They’re coming off a hot streak just winning the Pac-12 so they’re feeling very confident,” Marshall said.
The matchup features a reunion of former high-school teammates with Justin Hawkins going against Colorado freshman Spender Dinwiddie, who played together at Taft in Los Angeles. The Rebels are also familiar with leading scorer Carlon Brown, a senior transfer who had great games against UNLV when he was at Utah.
The Rebels opened as a 5-point favorite. They were also slight favorites the last two years, though, and those losses feed UNLV’s motivation this time around.
“That always stays in the back of your mind,” senior small forward Chace Stanback said. “… What you’ve got to take from that is that you’ve got to play every game like it’s your last. Don’t leave anything on the court.”
That’s exactly what they intend to do, but nobody can be sure how it will turn out. Does finishing 6-5 down the stretch indicate serious trouble? Will their road struggles transfer to a neutral court?
The Rebels have a few days to try to find answers. The fact they get that opportunity is good enough for Rice.
“Whether you close a season exactly how you want to or not, when your name gets called on Sunday it’s a new season and a level playing field,” Rice said. “… It’s something we’ve earned the right to do.”