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Much at stake for Rebels in Mountain West tournament

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Steve Marcus

UNLV head coach Marvin Menzies reacts during a game against UNR at the Thomas & Mack Center Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019.

The Rebel Room

Tournament time

Ray Brewer, Mike Grimala and Case Keefer prep for the Mountain West Conference tournament by breaking down what UNLV's first-round matchup against San Diego State on Thursday means for the program in the long-term. That includes forays into Marvin Menzies' job security, Kris Clyburn's development and boosters' influence.

The UNLV basketball program could be coming to a crossroads.

Marvin Menzies’ first three seasons as head coach have split the fan base, with some buying into his long-term vision and others wanting a quicker fix. Attendance was as low as it has ever been at the Thomas & Mack Center in 2018-19, which only adds pressure on UNLV leadership to make sure the program becomes very good, very soon in order to bring back paying customers.

In that big-picture context, how much can one, two or even three games matter? Well, for a Rebels team that still believes it can win those three Mountain West tournament games and earn a miracle bid to the big dance, the next 72 hours could end up meaning everything.

As fifth-seeded UNLV (17-13, 11-7 MWC) prepares to take on fourth-seeded San Diego State in Thursday’s quarterfinal matchup, let’s take a look at what’s at stake for the Rebels this week:

Menzies makes his case

Rumors about Menzies’ job security have been rumbling for months now (with varying degrees of veracity), but after posting the program’s best league finish since 2011 it seems more likely than not that Menzies will get at least another year to see his rebuilding effort through to the end.

Still, he would probably feel a little safer with a win over San Diego State on Thursday, as that would put UNLV in the MWC semifinals — further than they’ve been since 2014. Menzies would then be able to point to the progress the team has made during his tenure as proof that the rebuild is on track and set to break through to the NCAA tournament in 2019-20.

Revenge on SDSU

No team has tortured UNLV over the last decade-plus like San Diego State has. The Aztecs have simply dominated this matchup, both in the regular season and the postseason. SDSU has won 13 of the last 14 meetings overall, and they have swept UNLV in four of the last five seasons (including three seasons in which they also eliminated UNLV from the Mountain West tournament). That should be all the motivation the Rebels need to go all-out today.

And if they do need a little extra dose of urgency, they can always look back to their Jan. 26 meeting in San Diego. The Aztecs won that game easily, and Jalen McDaniels decided to drop in a 3-pointer at the buzzer just to rub it in. UNLV senior Kris Clyburn called it a “slap in the face” after the game.

UNLV almost got some payback in the second meeting, but a miss at the buzzer allowed SDSU to escape with a 1-point win at the Mack on Feb. 23. This will probably be the Rebels’ last shot at McDaniels, as the sophomore star is likely leaving for the NBA after this season. Expect Clyburn and the rest of the Rebels to be fired up about sending him off with a loss.

Referendum on small ball

UNLV fans have been reluctant to embrace the 3-point shot as a primary offensive option, which is a little ironic considering how fervently they embrace the team’s 3-point streak (1,056 games and counting). Menzies himself was even a little reluctant to build his offense around outside shooting — until his best post player went down with an injury.

Once Shakur Juiston was lost for the season toward the end of non-conference play, the Rebels embraced small ball and haven’t looked back. Freshman Joel Ntambwe moved to power forward permanently and ended up shooting a team-high 39.6 percent from beyond the arc, setting the tone for the Rebels to finish fourth in the conference in 3-point attempts and second in 3-point accuracy (36.8 percent).

It’s not always pretty — when the Rebels have an off-shooting night, they can lose to anyone — but it has gotten the team this far. If they can make enough 3’s to knock off San Diego State, Menzies would have to consider sticking with a more perimeter-oriented attack next season.

Respect for Robotham

Despite leading the Mountain West in assists (6.1 per game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (3.6) while making 41.1 percent of his 3-pointers, Noah Robotham was completely overlooked by the Mountain West coaches when it came time for postseason awards. Robotham wasn’t named to the All-MWC first, second or third team, and he didn’t even garner enough votes to merit an honorable mention nod.

The senior guard was obviously put off by the snub. When asked by the media for his thoughts on the All-MWC voting, the normally expansive orator simply said, “Don’t care for it.”

The tournament will give Robotham a chance to prove them wrong, starting today. San Diego State point guard Devin Watson (15.9 points, 3.3 assists, 3.0 turnovers, 37.1 3FG%) was chosen as a second-team All-MWC selection despite Robotham's superior numbers in conference play. If Robotham can outplay Watson head-to-head and lead the Rebels to a win, he can show why he deserved some recognition from the league’s coaches.

Redemption for freshmen

UNLV’s freshman class had its ups and downs this year, but a few good performances this week would go a long way toward instilling some faith in the future core of the team.

Joel Ntambwe showed top-notch scoring ability through most of the season and ended up third on the team at 11.9 points per game. He faded late, however, and it looks like the freshman wall may have taken its toll after Ntambwe started every game and averaged 24.1 minutes. The fact that the Rebels have only played one game in the last 11 days may give Ntambwe a chance to regain his verve just in time for the games that really matter.

Fellow first-year wings Bryce Hamilton and Trey Woodbury have struggled with the speed of the college game, but both have shown an ability to heat up from the outside. Menzies will likely trim their minutes and rely on his trusted veterans this week, but if Hamilton and Woodbury get on the floor, it might only take a couple made 3’s to redeem the entire season and give them a boost of confidence heading into Year 2.

NCAA dreams

This obviously goes without saying, but what’s really at stake this week is a bid to the NCAA tournament. UNLV hasn’t been there since 2013, when Anthony Bennett was throwing down two-handed dunks. As the fifth seed, UNLV’s chances are low — oddsmakers have the Rebels at 25/1 to win the Mountain West, while KenPom.com gives them a 3.1 percent chance to win the tourney — but San Diego State proved it could be done when they won the tournament as the No. 5 seed last year.

The Rebels’ road probably won’t be easy; after facing longtime nemesis San Diego State on Thursday, a likely matchup with UNR awaits in the semifinals. Momentum is a curious thing, however, and UNLV players and coaches believe they are playing their best basketball right now. Whether that translates to postseason success this week could go a long way in determining the future of the program.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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