Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, Feb. 8, 2013 | 2 a.m.
- UNLV Extras: Assessing the damage after the Rebels drop to 4-4 in league play
- Rebels have only simple explanations for complex loss at Fresno State
- Rebels searching for better mentality heading into road game at Fresno State
- Rebels still receiving votes in rankings, but not as many as Mountain West foe Colorado State
- UNLV Extras: Plenty of missed opportunities to go around in Rebels’ loss
- Rebels trail the whole way in disappointing setback at Boise State
- All UNLV men's basketball coverage
Current Mountain West standings
- New Mexico 20-3, 7-1
- Colorado State 19-4, 6-2
- San Diego State 17-5, 5-3
- Air Force 14-7, 5-3
- UNLV 17-6, 4-4
- Boise State 15-7, 3-5
- Wyoming 16-6, 2-6
- UNR 11-11, 2-6
- Fresno State 8-13, 2-6
Wednesday night capped the end of the first half of league play in the Mountain West, and for the Rebels it couldn’t have come soon enough.
Picked to win the league this preseason by nearly half of the voting media, UNLV is suddenly right in the middle at 4-4. The Rebels always knew the first half of the league slate shaped up to be more difficult than the second half, but that prognosis didn’t include losing at Fresno State.
As the teams prepare to face opponents for the second time — the league schedule is just flipped, so whatever team UNLV played at home it will now play on the road exactly a month later — we’re taking a look at the teams and storylines that could emerge the rest of the way.
1. Can UNLV get back in the race for first place?
We can answer this one more definitively after Saturday’s game, though the high-percentage response is already No.
The Rebels (17-6, 4-4) host first-place New Mexico (20-3, 7-1) at 6 p.m. on NBC Sports Network. Already three games back, falling four games back with a loss would completely seal UNLV’s fate of another season without a regular-season title.
Even if the Rebels win, trimming the deficit to two games, it’s a long shot. But at this point UNLV coach Dave Rice would love to get back into the realm of long shot as opposed to lost cause.
The best case you can make for the Rebels getting back into the race is that their schedule should be easier down the stretch. The league’s three top teams all have to come to the Thomas & Mack Center, and two of the three remaining road games are against two of the three teams (Wyoming and UNR) tied for last place.
The problem with that logic is the Rebels just lost at the team that used to be by itself in last place.
Given the Rebels’ struggles and the league’s overall depth, I’m guessing a lot of people wrote this opportunity off after the Boise State loss, and losing to Fresno State only confirmed it.
2. Will anyone catch the Lobos?
Yes and no. I think New Mexico will be tied for first place as early as Saturday and could even trail at some point, but there’s too much evidence in their favor to pick against coach Steve Alford and the Lobos.
The schedule isn’t great — in addition to UNLV, UNM has to travel to Colorado State and Air Force — but the Lobos’ strengths are tailor-made for surviving on the road. The Lobos play really good defense, especially on the perimeter, and they get to the free-throw line at an absurd rate — 26.6 percent of their points come at the free-throw line, the second-highest percentage for any team in the country.
It’s easy to say the team with the lead will win but I base this on recent history as much as what I’ve seen this year. When in doubt, bet on Alford.
3. How many teams will the MW get into the NCAA Tournament?
I’ve always thought the number was four, and although Air Force is really interesting as a fifth team, I’m sticking with that guess.
New Mexico is all but a lock and I think Colorado State has the best chance of any MW team to make the Sweet Sixteen. That’s two.
The other two will come from a pool of UNLV, San Diego State, Boise State and Air Force. Wyoming, which actually polished off a perfect nonconference season with a victory against Cal State Bakersfield on Wednesday night, is out of the picture because of its struggles without guard Luke Martinez.
I wrote before the Boise State-UNLV game that the Broncos would get the benefit of the doubt from the committee because their losses all involved injuries, but they still have to win enough games the rest of the way to stay relevant (a victory Wednesday at SDSU would have been huge).
Despite their struggles, UNLV and SDSU each have only one bad loss and those two are the odds-on favorites to be the third and fourth teams in. If Air Force rattles off another five-game winning streak, I think it would be hard to keep the Falcons out, but until something drastic changes (or a surprise team wins the conference tournament) I’m going with four.
4. What theme from the first half will continue to dominate the second half?
Injuries. Whether it’s UNLV’s Mike Moser, SDSU’s Xavier Thames and Chase Tapley or Boise’s Jeff Elorriaga, a lot of the Mountain West’s contenders have been dealing with injury issues.
Thames (lower back) is the most important one, because the Aztecs still aren’t sure when they’re going to get him back. He runs that offense in a way no one else, including former Findlay Prep Pilot and Aztec freshman Winston Shepard, can. And although Elorriaga doesn’t put up big numbers, he’s crucial to making the Broncos go, much in the way the Lobos last year didn’t go on their final run until they got guard Hugh Greenwood back.
5. What’s your predicted order of finish?
New Mexico, Colorado State, San Diego State, UNLV, Air Force, Boise State, UNR, Wyoming, Fresno State.
Put your guess down in the comments so you can come back to it in a month and prove how smart you are.