Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, March 14, 2014 | 8:10 p.m.
Here are some observations from the UNLV basketball team’s 59-51 loss today at San Diego State in the Mountain West semifinals.
What went wrong: It would have taken a near-perfect game for UNLV to hang with No. 7 San Diego State. That didn’t happen, specifically in the second half when the Rebels couldn’t score. San Diego State proved it had the better players, game plan and execution. The Aztecs (29-3) lost just three games this season for a reason. Even when UNLV opened the game on a 7-0 scoring run, you could sense the lead wouldn’t last. San Diego State’s length on defense was too much to overcome, limiting the Rebels to nine points in 12 minutes to open the second half. It was only a matter of time until the better team flexed its muscles and San Diego State simply overmatched an inferior opponent. San Diego State is the best team in the Mountain West, and behind Arizona of the Pac-12, one of the West Coast’s top programs. UNLV, sadly, isn’t in the conversation.
Another season of shortcomings: Fans labeling Dave Rice as a poor coach and game-manager have plenty of ammunition the past three seasons to validate their claim. Rice likely has similar criticism in his self-evaluation of the program. Bottom line, they have under-achieved and the blame lands squarely on the boss. But by no means is Rice not the right man for the job. The same people bashing Rice praise Lon Kruger, the previous Rebels coach who this season has Oklahoma back in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. In Kruger’s final three seasons at UNLV, the Rebels were twice knocked out in their first NCAA Tournament game, and once relegated to the NIT. Sound familiar? It’s exactly what Rice has done, posting a 71-32 record in his initial three seasons. While I’m in the minority, I firmly believe the Rebels will eventually make regular appearances in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. A recruiting class with three of the nation’s top 50 or so recruits will put the Rebels back in the mix again next season. And, just like his players, Rice will continue to get better.
What injured hip?: Khem Birch, the Rebels' 6-foot-9 center and their unquestioned best player, has been a one-man wrecking crew all season. When most of his teammates didn’t live up to the hype, he exceeded expectations virtually each game. Tonight, despite not being at full strength with an injured hip, Birch grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds and scored six points. The two-time Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year was equally impressive defensively in altering shots and defending the rim. Birch will have to decide between testing the NBA waters or returning to UNLV for his senior season. He’s ready for the pros. While his offensive game is still improving, there’s no doubt he can defend in the post at the next level.
Up next: UNLV will be relegated to participating in one of those three-letter postseason tournaments, which might not even be the NIT — the Cadillac of lower-tier tournaments, if you will. A Google search for NIT projections yields one result, and Bracketmatrix.com doesn’t think the Rebels have done enough to impress the NIT selection committee. Yes, this season was pretty bad for the scarlet and gray. And, yes, some helpless soul is out there predicting the NIT pairing. The Rebels could end up in the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) or the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT). Those are like the Hyundai and Schwinn bicycle of college tournaments. College Basketball Invitational’s website describes itself as, “The CBI provides a meaningful opportunity for teams that are deserving of a postseason experience.” We’ll learn Sunday how deserving the Rebels are.