Analysis:

Take 5: Resetting the storylines halfway through Mountain West play

The Rebels open the second half of league play at home Saturday at 6 p.m. against first-place New Mexico

Image

Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Fireworks light up the Thomas & Mack before the start of UNLV’s game against UNR on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013. UNLV won the game 66-54.

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.

Click to enlarge photo

The Air Force bench cheers as they pull ahead of UNLV during the second half of their game Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack. UNLV won in overtime, 76-71.

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.

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

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy

Previous Discussion: 21 comments so far…

Comments are moderated by Las Vegas Sun editors. Our goal is not to limit the discussion, but rather to elevate it. Comments should be relevant and contain no abusive language. Comments that are off-topic, vulgar, profane or include personal attacks will be removed. Full comments policy.

  1. Call me a "homer", I don't care...1st UNM, CSU, UNLV tie, 4th SDSU and AF tie, 6 Boise, 7 UNR, 8 Wyo, 9 Fresno.

  2. UNM 13-3
    CSU 12-4
    AF 11-5
    SDSU 9-7
    BSU 8-8
    UNLV 7-9
    UW 5-11
    UNR 3-13
    FSU 2-14

  3. UNM 14-2
    CSU 11-5
    SDSU 10-6
    UNLV 9-7
    AF 8-8
    BSU 8-8
    UW 7-9
    UNR 3-13
    FSU 3-13

  4. UNM
    SDSU
    CSU
    AF
    BSU
    UNLV
    UW
    UNR
    FSU

  5. UNM 14-2
    CSU 12-4
    UNLV 10-6
    SDSU 10-6
    AFA 9-7
    Boise 6-10
    Wyoming 5-11
    UNR 5-11
    Fresno 3-13

  6. 1. Colorado State
    2. New Mex
    3. UNLV(tie)
    3. San Diego (tie)
    5. Air Force (tie)
    5. Boise (tie)
    7. Nevada
    8. Wyoming
    9. Fresno

    Conference Tournament in Vegas Winner: Colorado State vs UNLV(Its in Vegas)

    Who goes dancing?: UNLV, New Mex, Colorado State, SDSU, Air Force

    Who Goes to NIT?: Boise, Nevada, Wyoming.

    Fresno State might upset a few teams in the Conference Tourn.

  7. Looking at the schedule and not seeing 6 more wins. Did you guys watch the game Wednesday? Do you really think that team that was manhandled and by Fresno St. can win 10 games in this conference? I see wins over SDSU (overrated), UNR, and Fres St. (bad road team), maybe BSU @home. I really do hope I'm wrong and I would like to see a big win today.

  8. Easy money tonight- taking NM +4 1/2. What a joke that this team is favored.

  9. 1) NM 2) CST 3) AF. 4) SDST 5) UNLV 6) BST. 7) Wyoming 8) UNR 9) FST
    Conference winner- NM
    MWC Tournament winner-SDST

  10. UNLV is 29-1 at the T&M in the regular season under Dave Rice. As bad as things seem right now, I would be surprised if the Rebels didn't win all five of their remaining conference home games.

    The season is far from over, but it would be over if any of the Debbie Downer's on here were on the coaching staff.

  11. @ Phillips. I'm a bit confused, you previously stated that UNLV's problems stem from the Kruger guys and Rice guys mix. Now you say that UNLV should win all their remaining home games. The question is, does your theory on Kruger guys and Rice guys only apply for road games or losses? Hmmm sounds like a bottom of the barrel excuse for poor coaching.

  12. @HoosierBoy - Even at home, you still have the case of Kruger vs. Rice guys. However, the Rebels play with more energy at home, execute better, and they feel much more comfortable.

    So, what I say is in no way contradictory.

  13. OK Phillips, where's your picks? Your 5 home wins gets them to 9-7. That might be good enough for 4th place for the "most talented team in the conference." So the Debbie downers are actually Debbie realities. What evidence do you have that this team will not continue the same trend since Kruger ran out of sons that he can recruit. Lots of hype but no substance.

  14. @bigfish (Greg Sabataso) - They don't lose home games. It's that simple. As far as the road goes, I don't know if they can turn it around. But they only need one road win to get to 10-6 in conference play if they win out at home. That would be enough to get them into the NCAA Tournament.

  15. There can be no "reality" -- optimistic or pessimistic -- until the season plays out. Tonight could be an indicator of whether the Fresno State loss saw UNLV bouncing along the bottom, ready to climb again, or if, instead, the Boise State loss dropped them into a downward spiral. How Las Vegas devolved from being a city of loyal fans to getting stuck in a "homers versus couch-coaches" debate, who knows? In a few years, the NCAA might be gone, and we'll have minor league, semi-pro basketball on one side, and basic, old-school intermurals in college. In the meantime, I'll just enjoy the game and support the team. Go Rebels!

  16. What did y all expect this season?
    GUARDS win games and BIGs allow that to happen.
    daaaaaaaaaaaa, the 3 point line.
    Rebels guards:
    4th year 2 guard playing the point - Grade B+, plays hard as hell
    Starting 2 guards - frosh with lacking defensive skills. Reinhardt, grade c- (at best)
    RS soph that plays OUT OF CONTROL way to fking much (although is getting better, NOT afraid though, grade C
    4 manchild - still adjusting to Physical College play) AB - your not going up against high school lads ANYMORE. Plays VERY. very poor defense and NOT tough enough. Grade, C (B+ offense, D- defense)
    Moser - grade C- thanks to injury
    Birch - C+ terrific at times, disappears others,
    needs to add strength and TOUGHEN the hell up as well
    Coaching - C- when the OUT OF CONTROL players didnt adjust early in the season, he needed to send a message even if it COST the team a loss. Have watched most games and Rice rarely has a stern thing to say. Welllllllllll Davey, that aint working & a chgange of pace is REQUIRED.

    Conclusion: just as expected from the beginning - this team was one year away from the start. Too freaking much youth. POTENTIAL wins on paper and GAMES are won on the court last I looked!

  17. @Eastcoastrebelfan - Anybody can sound like a genius after the fact.

  18. LMAO
    didnt take a genious to see
    Reinhardt - frosh
    B-J - RS soph
    Goodman - frosh
    Bennett - Frosh
    Birch - RS Frosh
    that leaves Moser - RS Jr, Thomas - RS Senior
    Marshall - OUT OF POSITION Senior
    Hawkins - Sr with 40ish FG% and SUB 30% long ball.

    Conclusion - WHERE is the scoring coming from?
    we know where the lacking in toughness comes from - INEXPERIENCE.

    Chuck in a 2nd year 1st time HC & that L&G is a formula for mediocrity.

    So many clueless fans.............the evidence was right their in the roster!!!!! Youth & Inexperience

    Throw in the fact that Rice refused to go on the road early and provide some SHOCK culture to this swelled head bunch. That was reported quite some time ago and guess what?
    @ N Mex - L
    @ Diego St - W
    @ Color St - L
    @ Boise St - L
    @ Fresno St - L
    that leaves only @ Wyoming. Face the music, this team WAS NOT prepared for raod wars. That falls directly on Rices shoulders. Lots of teams can play at home, the seperator is................ & we all know, 4 losses in 5 in league on the ROAD.
    EOS

  19. Phhilips you're full of you know what, the Rebels are done they won't win another game ,everybody knows how to beat them now. Slap the ball out of thier hands , let em shoot outside, and stay under the board to get the rebound, cuz once they shoot they run away like it went in. UNM by 20 , piece of cake win for the lobos.

  20. I hope you prove me wrong

  21. @Eastcoastrebelfan - Show me proof that you said this in November. Then, I can take you more seriously. Otherwise, hind sight is 20/20. And once again, anybody can nitpick after the fact.