Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014 | 2 a.m.
The outcome will be one thing, but the more interesting aspect of UNLV’s game at Boise State today is how much the Rebels will even care to be here.
After Wednesday’s loss to New Mexico, the Rebels’ five remaining regular-season games will lack the same importance as the ones before. Barring a huge collapse by both the Lobos and San Diego State, one of those two teams is going to win the regular-season title. UNLV will likely finish a few games behind.
Just how far back remains to be seen, and that’s the most intriguing storyline as UNLV heads into its final stretch of games starting tonight at Boise State. The Rebels (17-9, 8-5) and Broncos (17-9, 7-6) tip off at 5 p.m. Las Vegas time and will air on CBS Sports Network.
Without the carrot of a conference title dangling in front of them, it’s possible the Rebels will revert to their nonexistent effort like the trip to Colorado State. It’s probably not that simple, but it’s fair to wonder how much the lost motivation of a three-team race at the top will affect an already inconsistent team.
Boise State is in a similar situation, having lost three of its past five, including two of them in heartbreaking fashion. But whereas the Broncos are trending up slightly with the goal of third place, UNLV is still dealing with the disappointment of dropping out of top-two contention.
That means we’ll likely see a motivated Boise State squad tonight. The question is, how will the Rebels play?
Few players besides Khem Birch played with much passion against New Mexico. Other exceptions were freshmen Christian Wood and Kendall Smith. Wood did a nice job taking advantage of the Lobos’ hard closeouts on 3-point attempts, and in limited minutes Smith looked like he was taking the loss personally.
If UNLV is going to finish the season strongly, which it wants to do to have any confidence heading into the conference tournament, giving more minutes to guys such as Wood and Smith seems like a good place to start. Those players’ continued development is important not only for this season but as the Rebels also look forward to next year.
However, next season isn’t really the issue right now. There’s time for that later. Right now, it’s about finding out whether this Rebels team is going to take a stand or roll over.
They could play well at Boise State and still lose. The effort the Rebels put forth tonight is more important than the outcome, because if they’re able to bounce back and fight hard in this game, then there’s at least some evidence of a decision to play that way the rest of this season.
And let’s not forget, if UNLV holds on for third place, it will finish in exactly the same place I, and many others, had them picked in the preseason. The same place the Rebels finished in each of coach Dave Rice’s first two seasons.
Many see this year as a disappointment, and from an intrigue standpoint I’m disappointed we won’t have a three-team race for the league crown. Without that, what I am interested to see is how a wildly inconsistent UNLV team responds.