Sunday, March 17, 2013 | 8:20 p.m.
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The brackets are out and the Las Vegas Sun sports team is here to discuss UNLV's draw as the 5-seed in San Jose, Calif., and a rematch with Cal.
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Crowded together on one side of the upstairs lounge in the Mendenhall Center, the Rebels didn’t whoop and holler when they saw “5 UNLV” appear on CBS’ selection show for the NCAA Tournament. The live look-in showed the team, dressed in matching black, long-sleeve polos, clapping and mostly smiling, but there wasn’t much overt excitement.
Some of that, certainly, had to do with the surprise at getting a rematch, something the NCAA selection committee tries to avoid. On Thursday at 4:27 p.m. Las Vegas time in San Jose, Calif., the Rebels will play 12-seed Cal for the second time this season and the third time in the past two years. The game is on truTV.
“I was a little surprised,” said senior Quintrell Thomas, who hit the game-winning shot at Cal earlier this season.
Thomas was referring both to the Rebels’ placement as a 5-seed in the East Region — it’s the team’s best seed since it was a 1 in 1991 — and seeing the Golden Bears again in what is essentially another road game. HP Pavilion is about an hour drive from Berkeley, Calif., down Interstate 880 south.
“It would seem to be an advantage (to Cal), but we’re excited to be staying west,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.
A league-record five Mountain West teams made the field. Despite its double titles and great computer numbers, New Mexico got a 3 and plays 14 Harvard in Salt Lake City. The other Mountain West matchups include: 7 San Diego State vs. former UNLV coach Lon Kruger's 10-seed Oklahoma in Philadelphia, 8 Colorado State vs. 9 Missouri and 13 Boise State vs. 13 La Salle in the first round on Wednesday. UNLV and SDSU both got higher seeds than most projections had them at.
“It’s the best available seed and the best available location," UNLV Athletics Director Jim Livengood said of the Rebels' placement.
Back to the players' reaction: More than the matchup, the general calm has a lot to do with UNLV’s recent tournament history.
After all, the Rebels weren’t worried about making the field. Despite losing to New Mexico in Saturday’s Mountain West tournament final UNLV knew it was looking at a top-7 seed and actually was in better position than most people expected.
So getting into the field isn’t a big reason to celebrate. That would come with a victory and a trip to the Round of 32, where the Rebels haven’t been since 2008. Sunday felt like a frequent traveler just finding out where he’s being sent this week.
“It’s business,” Rice said. “I also want the guys to enjoy the process, to be able to look back on it and say they did everything they could to help us win.”
The Rebels’ level of enjoyment most likely depends on their ability to repeat the outcome of their Dec. 9 trip to Cal. That’s the game that altered junior Mike Moser’s season when he suffered a gruesome injury to his right elbow while diving for a loose ball early in the first half.
“We barely got out of that one alive,” Thomas said.
Trailing by one, Anthony Marshall took a contested jumper in the final seconds that fell so short of the rim Thomas was able to box out his man and grab the ball for a put-back. The Rebels played that game without Khem Birch, who wasn’t eligible yet, and got only five minutes from Moser.
“I think this game will come down to who’s grown up and matured the most since we last played,” Moser said.
Although Cal is definitely a better team today than it was that day more than three months ago, it’s clear the Rebels are demonstrably different. Birch and Moser create matchup problems and lineup configurations the Rebels simply didn’t have at their disposal the first time around.
If UNLV defeats Cal, it would face the winner of 4 Syracuse vs. 13 Montana. The Orange play almost exclusively a 2-3 zone defense, which could mean a record number of UNLV 3-point attempts.
That’s a question for a later date, though. First the Rebels have to get there.
“It all starts with one game,” Marshall said.
Marshall was the definition of business-like at Mendenhall. This is his fourth and final trip to the NCAA Tournament, so just getting there again doesn’t change his demeanor. Still, Rice said, that’s quite an accomplishment.
The last two UNLV players to play in four consecutive NCAA Tournaments were Stacey Augmon and Chris Jeter from 1988-91. To put that in perspective, one guy is now a UNLV assistant coach after a lengthy playing career and the other has a son, Bishop Gorman sophomore Chase Jeter, who holds a scholarship offer from the Rebels, among others. So, yeah, it’s been awhile.
All in all, Sunday was a low-key day for the Rebels. The team’s private gathering was a change of pace from the public events of the past, which could be for better or worse. It’s definitely different, and after several years of the same disappointing results in the Round of 64, maybe different is a good thing.
And while both UNLV and Cal are different teams than the ones who played each other back in December, it should help the Rebels’ confidence to go into the rematch with a last-second victory in their pocket.
“You did it once.” Marshall said. “Why not do it twice?”