Jeremy Rincon / Ballislife
Saturday, March 8, 2014 | 11:59 p.m.
While UNLV’s lead was disappearing tonight at Lawlor Events Center, most eyes around the Mountain West were fixated on another big comeback taking place at Viejas Arena in San Diego.
San Diego State erased a 16-point deficit against New Mexico to win the regular season league title and take the No. 1 seed in next week's conference tournament for the second time in the past three years. They could meet again in Saturday’s tournament championship at the Thomas & Mack Center, although UNLV is one of many teams attempting to crash that party. The Rebels, which fell to the No. 4 seed, open the tournament at 2:30 p.m. Thursday against Wyoming.
“I’m looking forward to the tournament when we all come back as a team,” Khem Birch said of UNLV possibly getting Roscoe Smith and Bryce Dejean-Jones back this week. “We’re going to be stronger than ever.”
The Rebels’ loss dropped them into a tie for third with UNR, which won the tiebreaker because it swept the season series. So the top four seeds are San Diego State, New Mexico, UNR and UNLV. Wyoming defeated Colorado State earlier in the day and won a three-way tiebreaker with Boise State and Fresno State because of its victory against SDSU earlier this season.
The top five seeds earned a first-round bye, while the bottom six teams will being play on Wednesday. Those games are as follows: Sixth-seeded Boise State will play No. 11 San Jose State with the winner playing UNR; Fresno State will play Air Force in the 7-10 with the winner facing New Mexico; and Utah State will meet Colorado State in the 8-9 with the winner getting San Diego State.
The Rebels played Wyoming only once this season, at home, and won by two when Larry Nance was hobbled but still playing. He injured his knee three games later and was lost for the season, with the Cowboys posting a 1-4 record down the stretch.
If the Rebels get past Wyoming, it would likely face league champ SDSU before a potential championship matchup against New Mexico. Since many believe the Lobos have been the best team in the league over the last month, UNLV may have actually dodged a bullet by moving that game until the end.
Of course, the Rebels have tons of work to do just to get to that point, and even the first game won’t be easy. Birch is hoping that both the Rebels and Aztecs win to set up a semifinal showdown on Friday.
“We owe San Diego one,” he said.