UNLV basketball:

Rebels begin Mountain West tournament run today against Wyoming

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Wyoming guard Josh Adams finds a wide open lane to the basket during their game against UNLV on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV won 48-46.

You can't hide in tournament play. There's a magnifying glass on everything and the slightest blemish looks a lot bigger on this stage. That's the environment UNLV steps into in the Thomas & Mack Center on Thursday afternoon.

On the surface Wyoming doesn't seem capable of passing that test. As it has for the last five games, Wyoming will play without top player Larry Nance Jr., who's out for the year with a knee injury. UNLV big man Khem Birch has had some health concerns of his own, but coach Dave Rice said Wednesday that Birch will be ready to go.

That’s a huge advantage for the Rebels, who begin their attempt to win their way into the NCAA Tournament this afternoon at 2:30 against the Cowboys.

UNLV’s only chance at a fifth straight trip to the Big Dance is a win on Saturday. And to get there, the Rebels must take down Wyoming and then most likely San Diego State.

But first and foremost UNLV has to deal with the Cowboys. It’s not good to look past anyone, even a team missing its first-team all-conference forward.

“We’re just trying to win one game in one day,” Rice said of not looking ahead.

Nance was banged up in UNLV’s only meeting with Wyoming at the Mack earlier this season, but he still had 12 points and nine rebounds. After he went down with a season-ending knee injury, the Cowboys were left for dead. And while a 1-4 finish isn’t something to brag about, the Cowboys’ guards have done a very good job filling in the production.

Guards Josh Adams, Riley Grabau and Nathan Sobey have increased their scoring and started pushing the pace a little more than Wyoming did with Nance. It’s not a drastically different attack but there’s often an extra shooter on the court and that’s a concern for Rice, who puts three-point percentage defense ahead of most everything else.

“They’ve become even more difficult to guard on the perimeter,” Rice said.

So that’s how Wyoming has coped with its challenges. UNLV has had its own issues to deal with, from Bryce Dejean-Jones’ one-game suspension to the health of Birch and junior forward Roscoe Smith.

All of those guys are cleared to play, although Rice said Jelan Kendrick and Christian Wood would start in place of Dejean-Jones and Smith, who missed the last two games because of a concussion.

Birch is the most interesting one of that trio. He injured his hip last Wednesday against San Diego State yet played through it for 15 points and 22 rebounds at UNR on Saturday. He then didn’t practice Monday or Tuesday but returned to the court Wednesday.

“We still wanted him to get some reps in terms of how we’re going to guard Wyoming,” Rice said of getting Birch on the practice court.

The left hip flexor injury is causing him a lot of pain, although judging by the UNR game it doesn’t affect his ability to be productive. If he’s dialed in and able to play like normal, UNLV should definitely advance to the semifinals. Without Nance, Wyoming simply doesn’t have the personnel to combat him on either end of the floor.

But if Birch is limited, there are enough questions elsewhere that UNLV is guaranteed of nothing. This isn’t the time for any Rebels to take plays off or overlook a Wyoming team missing its best player.

The Rebels only have one more chance at getting to the only postseason tournament they really want to play in. And it starts today.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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