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January 19, 2018

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Ray Brewer: From the Pressbox

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Possibility of playing Kansas is again part of Selection Sunday for Rebels

Rebels in the same pod as national power Kansas for their third straight NCAA appearance


Steve Marcus

Members of the UNLV men’s basketball team celebrate as their name is announced in a NCAA tournament selection show being shown at the Cox Pavilion at UNLV on Sunday, March 13, 2011. The Rebels will play Illinois on Friday in Tulsa, Okla.

UNLV on Selection Sunday

Members of the UNLV men's basketball team celebrate as their name is announced in a NCAA tournament selection show being shown at the Cox Pavilion at UNLV on Sunday, March 13, 2011. The Rebels will play Illinois on Friday in Tulsa, Okla. Launch slideshow »
The Rebel Room

Rebel Room: Selection Sunday Edition

The UNLV basketball team received a No. 8 seed Sunday for the NCAA Tournament and will play Illinois at 6:20 p.m. Friday in Tulsa. The winner will likely play top-seeded Kansas. UNLV has been in Kansas' pod in its last three tournament appearances. Additionally, Rebels' coach Lon Kruger is a former coach at Illinois, leading them to three appearances in the NCAA second round before leaving in 2000 to coach the NBA Atlanta Hawks. His successor? Current Kansas coach Bill Self. Ray Brewer, Ryan Greene and Case Keefer discuss the coaching storyline, the rest of the intriguing angles and offer opinions elsewhere within the field of 68.

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Players on the UNLV basketball team are starting to know how Bill Murray’s character felt in the movie “Groundhog Day.”

Dazed and confused. Shocked. Back in the same spot it started and starting to believe it’s not a coincidence anymore.

The Rebels couldn’t get off the 8-9 bracket line for the NCAA Tournament, receiving a No. 8 seed in the Southwest Region to face Illinois on Friday in the 68-team field. If they win, the Rebels would likely play the region’s top seed, national power Kansas.

Sound familiar?

UNLV has been the No. 8 seed in the same pod its last three tournament appearances, with Kansas as a potential second-game opponent all three times. In 2008, the Rebels lost to Kansas in the second round, and the Jayhawks went on to win the national title.

While the Rebels' coaches and players aren’t openly saying it, they know the truth: They deserve better than a No. 8 seed. And they certainly shouldn’t have to line up to play Kansas again.

The Rebels (24-8) closed the season by winning nine of their last 11 games, while seven of the eight teams they lost to qualified for the tournament. Additionally, five of UNLV’s defeats came to Mountain West Conference rivals BYU and San Diego State — two schools ranked in the top 10.

Some 15 minutes after the bracket was announced, one fan summarized how the entire Rebel Nation was seemingly feeling. “Kansas in the 2nd round three years in a row. Complete crap,” wrote clifton7, a commenter on the Sun’s website.

Just don’t expect coach Lon Kruger to buy into what several are classifying as a surprise.

“We hope to have the opportunity to play Kansas, of course that would mean we’d win the first one,” Kruger said. “So, we have to take care of that. That is all these guys will be thinking about and concerned about. In the 8-9 you are going to get a very tough second-round opponent if you win the first one. And certainly Kansas is very tough. Very good.”

Kruger is right.

Instead of wasting time and energy worrying about things they can’t control, such as the bracketing process, the Rebels’ sole focus should be on the one thing it can control: beating Illinois.

When, and if, the time comes to play Kansas it won’t be the first time Kruger has game-planned against them. Kruger is a former player and coach at Kansas State, leading the hated-rival Wildcats to the Elite Eight in 1988, where they lost to Kansas. Kansas went on to win the national title. Go figure, just like 2008.

There are also coincidences for UNLV’s game with Illinois. Kruger was the Illinois head coach from 1996 to 2000, leading them three times to the tournament’s second round before leaving to coach the Atlanta Hawks. Also, UNLV post player Carlos Lopez was a high school teammate of Illinois guard D.J. Richardson at Findlay Prep in Henderson.

Against Kansas, UNLV’s Anthony Marshall and Kansas’ Elijah Johnson are both from North Las Vegas and former AAU teammates. UNLV forward Quintrell Thomas is a Kansas transfer, and pretty excited about getting a chance to prove his worth against his former team.

He shouldn’t be the only one. UNLV would be playing with house money against Kansas, with nothing to lose and everything to gain.

And, just because Kansas is a No. 1 seed and a team several expect to make a deep run, doesn’t mean it can’t be beat. It was just last year when Northern Iowa beat UNLV in the first round, then upset Kansas in the second round in one of the biggest upsets of the tournament.

That would be the best Groundhog Day scenario for UNLV.

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