Friday, Feb. 22, 2019 | 2 a.m.
If there is a line of demarcation in the Mountain West, UNLV is that line.
The Rebels (15-11, 9-5 MWC) are currently sitting in fifth place in the 11-team conference, and a clear trend has been established this season. Against teams that are below them in the standings, the Rebels are 9-1; against teams above them, they are 0-4.
Due to the MWC’s unbalanced schedule, UNLV won’t play second-place Utah State or third-place Fresno State again. But the Rebels will get a second crack at San Diego State (16-9, 8-4) on Saturday, followed by a date with UNR (24-2, 11-2) on Wednesday.
UNLV lost back-to-back games against SDSU and UNR earlier this season, dropping both by 17-point margins. But coming off three straight victories (Air Force, San Jose State, Wyoming), the Rebels are confident they can match up with the league’s top teams this time around.
After beating Wyoming on the road on Tuesday, senior point guard Noah Robotham pointed out that UNLV has a perfect record in rematch games this season.
“I think we’re doing a good job of making adjustments,” Robotham said. “This was the fourth time we played a team twice in conference, and we’re 4-0 against those teams, so it shows the growth of this team.”
UNLV appears to be trending upward heading into the final two weeks of the regular season. With the caveat that the current winning streak has come against opponents with a combined league record of 8-32, the Rebels have locked in their rotation.
Over the last three contests, UNLV’s starting lineup of Robotham, Amauri Hardy, Kris Clyburn, Joel Ntambwe and Mbacke Diong has outscored the opposition, 90-62, in just more than 42 minutes of court time. They have registered a positive plus/minus rating in all three games, the first time this season that any Rebels’ starting five has logged back-to-back games in positive territory.
Diong in particular has made an impact. He appears close to 100 percent (an ankle injury forced him to miss four games from Jan. 16-26), and the sophomore center has led UNLV in individual plus/minus rating in each of the last three contests (+41 in 92 minutes).
In short, UNLV looks to be ready for March. The Rebels have found their optimal lineup, they have developed an offensive identity (though the outside shooting has gone cold of late), and they are consistently beating the teams they should beat.
Now they’ll get another chance to prove they can play with the best teams the Mountain West has to offer. Robotham said UNLV can draw inspiration from the way New Mexico and San Diego State peaked in the league tournament last year.
And although the team’s current winning streak has come against the league’s also-rans, Robotham cautioned against writing off the Rebels.
“Those teams aren’t in the top half of the league, but still, anytime you play a team the second time around, that shows the growth of your team,” Robotham said. “We want to get wins right now … We need that momentum going into March because you need to be playing your best basketball at the right time, like New Mexico and San Diego State did last year.”