Seven Steps to the Big Dance

The Rebels are off to a hot start. Who knows what else is in store? (Not us, but we’ll tell you anyway.)

Folks in this town build fortunes on prognostication. Or at least that’s what they tell us in their radio ads. So when the UNLV basketball team sprinted to its best start since the 1990-91 squad reached the Final Four at 34-0, we got a little ahead of ourselves and started predicting how the rest of the season would go. As it turns out, we kept getting caught up in our own enthusiasm and blathering on about 30-point victories over Duke. (When did that ever happen?) So we decided to hedge our bets and predict on the downside as well. Now we can’t possibly lose. (Could be time to get a radio ad of our own.) Seven pivotal games will determine how far UNLV travels in its quest to re-establish itself as a national power on the way to the NCAA Tournament. Here’s a look at each one.

Dec. 21, at Kansas State

Old Pavlovian responses die hard. Quintrell Thomas wasn’t a Kansas Jayhawk for long, but apparently the sophomore transfer was there long enough to develop a healthy hatred for all things K-State. Thomas looks like a legitimate low-post threat with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Rebels win, 74-71.

The inside-outside duo of Curtis Kelly and Jacob Pullen combines for 56 points as the sixth-ranked Wildcats show the Rebels how far they still have to climb in an 85-73 whipping.

Jan. 5, BYU, Thomas & Mack Center

Cougars star Jimmer Fredette inadvertently declares himself eligible for last season’s NBA Draft and is retroactively selected by the New York Knicks. Oscar Bellfield, Chace Stanback and Tre’Von Willis combine for 62 points as the Rebels cruise, 85-71, before a sellout crowd.

Fredette comes off screens to sink nine 3-pointers. With the score tied at 79 and three seconds remaining, BYU coach Dave Rose designs a gorgeous inbounds play. Fredette scores from 15 feet out to win for the Cougars. Sophomore forward Chris Collinsworth breaks the play down on the telestrator.

Jan. 12, at San Diego State

The Rebels’ swarming defense—led by Derrick Jasper, Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins—causes considerable annoyance to the Aztecs all night. The Rebels win, 69-63, and move into the top 10. Recruits who previously planned visits only to Duke and Kentucky begin booking flights to Vegas.

The Aztecs’ front line of Kahwi Leonard, Billy White and Malcolm Thomas wears down UNLV in a 77-70 SDSU victory. The Rebels fall to third in the Mountain West, and 22nd in nation.

Feb. 5, at BYU

BYU fans stage a massive pregame protest against the Cougars’ impending departure from the Mountain West Conference. “The sheer arrogance of our administration is abominable,” one fan says. “I feel that we owe the conference an apology.” The fans wear Rebel red to show their solidarity with the Mountain West. Demoralized, the Cougars fall, 82-59.

The refs fall for Fredette’s crybaby tactics every time a Rebel gets within 3 feet of him, leading to 10 UNLV players fouling out. The Rebels finish the 93-74 loss with three walk-ons, coach Lon Kruger and the equipment manager on the floor.

Feb. 12, San Diego State, Thomas & Mack Center

In last year’s Mountain West Conference Tournament championship, the Aztecs humbled the Rebels in the paint on their way to a convincing 55-45 victory. Leonard pulled down 21 rebounds; the entire Rebel team had 26. Tonight, the triumvirate of Thomas, Brice Massamba and Carlos Lopez clears the air, combining for 34 points and 27 rebounds. Rebels survive, 78-77, as Massamba (!) hits two free throws with 0.4 seconds left on clock.

A rodeo spontaneously erupts at the Thomas & Mack, and the game is moved to the Orleans Arena. The Rebels flash back to their second-half sloppiness against Boise State, commit 15 turnovers and fall, 84-79.

Feb. 23, at New Mexico

A young man needs his space, and last season teams were willing to give Marshall plenty of it. As a freshman, Marshall fired 23 shots from beyond the arc. One of them went into the basket. Now he is older, wiser and a bit more accurate. Marshall gets that cold, demonic look in his eyes and hits six 3-pointers on his way to a career-high 26 points. UNLV 91, New Mexico 86.

There’s something not quite right about a building you descend into. In the mid-1960s, the fine people of Albuquerque had the clever idea of digging a 37-foot hole for visiting teams to be buried in. For 40 years, the Pit has been one of the scariest hoops destinations in the nation. This year is no different. Lobos 71, Rebels 64.

March 9-12, MWC Tournament, Thomas & Mack Center

Two minutes into the title game against BYU, Stanback inadvertently breathes on Fredette and picks up his third foul. Freshman Karam Mashour enters the game as a nervous Thomas & Mack crowd looks on. Mashour, who nearly redshirted at the start of the season, has worked his way into the rotation with his hard-nosed play, but nothing has prepared the Rebel faithful for today. Mashour looks like an Israeli Magic Johnson, with 13 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists as the Rebels win, 92-80, and make the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed in the Western Regional. Cougars head for the West Coast Conference.

Same scenario, except Mashour reminds many of Kurt Rambis. Cougars prevail, 69-67. Rebels head for the dance anyway as a No. 9 seed in the East. (You didn’t really think we were going to send them to the NIT, did you?) But then there’s this: projected second-round foe—Duke.