Friday, Feb. 27, 2015 | 3:26 p.m.
Las Vegas Sun sports writers Ray Brewer and Taylor Bern have given up trying to predict UNLV's performances as the Rebels responded from an ugly home loss to go win by eight at New Mexico.
Dave Rice is in a new position this year, because at the end of February all three of his previous teams had something more to play for. The first two earned at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament, and at this time last year, the Rebels were in third place in the Mountain West, out of the title hunt but still looking to finish highly and maybe earn an NIT bid.
When things went south at the end of last season — suspensions and locker-room fighting, along with losses in three of their last four games — the Rebels decided not to pursue playing in the CBI or CIT tournaments, which charge programs to keep their season going. With five guys either transferring or being asked to leave after the season, it made sense to let the year end at the Thomas & Mack Center in the semifinals of the Mountain West tournament.
That might not be the same case this season.
UNLV’s focus is, of course, on Saturday’s game against Wyoming and, in a larger sense, trying to earn an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament by winning the conference tournament. But if that doesn’t happen, Rice said, the makeup of his roster — four freshmen and a sophomore in the rotation, plus two freshmen trying to come back from injuries — might make him consider one of those lesser tournaments to get more practice and game time.
“From that standpoint, any experience you can get is positive for this year and certainly for the future,” Rice said.
Nothing has been decided on that, though, because UNLV (15-13, 6-9) is still trying to win out and win the conference tournament, as unlikely as that might be. Wyoming (21-7, 10-5) comes to the Mack for a 5 p.m. tip-off that will air on CBS Sports Network.
The Cowboys have their best player, Larry Nance Jr., back after a four-game absence because of mononucleosis, but on Wednesday Nance was clearly still trying to get back into shape, and he wasn’t enough to help Wyoming avoid a home loss to Fresno State. That setback probably means Wyoming isn’t getting into the NCAA Tournament without winning the conference tournament, and it also means that UNLV is very likely going to end up in its first-ever play-in game.
The Rebels’ incentive to beat out Fresno State for sixth place was to avoid the two preliminary Wednesday afternoon games that open the conference tournament and would force a team to win four games in four days to cut down the nets. The Bulldogs’ upset at Wyoming put them a full two games ahead of UNLV with three games to play, so the odds are stacked against the Rebels.
The league has swapped teams in and out so often that the tournament rarely keeps the same format — this year San Jose State is banned because of a low APR score — but in the years when a team had to play a game before the quarterfinals, only one even made it to its third game, let alone the fourth.
Senior guard Cody Doolin said the players are aware of the standings but, like Rice, they’re trying not to look past the next game. Whether Nance is fully healthy or not, that’s how UNLV will treat him.
“We’re preparing for him to be the Player of the Year candidate Larry Nance,” Rice said.
Whether that means doubling him in the post, which UNLV rarely did in the first meeting, when Nance scored 29 on 10-of-16 shooting, remains to be seen. Wyoming is the third-worst 3-point shooting team in Mountain West play, but Rice is concerned about guys like Riley Grabau (36.1 percent on 3s this season) and Josh Adams (32.4 percent) getting open looks out there.
Stopping Nance, and Wyoming at large, is at the forefront of UNLV’s mind right now. But know that even though this season will be Rice’s worst from a record standpoint, the team could end up playing longer than any of the previous three.