A year ago, UNLV embarked on a February trip to face Colorado State needing a win to help solidify its standing as a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament.
Now, the 17th-ranked Rebels head to Fort Collins needing to win for a whole different set of reasons.
At 24-6 overall and armed with a résumé almost any team in the country would love to have at this point in the season, the Rebels are all but a mortal lock to be included in the field of 68 when it’s unveiled next Sunday.
Before that, re-establishing the confidence that it can play with anyone, anytime, anywhere — emphasis on ‘anywhere’ — is crucial.
UNLV will get that chance on Wednesday night, heading into what should be a raucous environment at Moby Arena. The Rams, who have a shot at their first NCAA tourney berth since 2003, have only lost on their home floor once all season and are unblemished at home in Mountain West play.
“We need to have that mindset that we had this past week,” first-year Rebels coach Dave Rice said, referring to a pair of lopsided home victories over Boise State and Air Force. “I realize those games were at home this week, but the formula’s the same.”
What was that formula, you ask?
Well, its main ingredient was defense.
After arguably its poorest defensive showing of the season in a 102-97 overtime loss at TCU and an overall rough performance four days later in a 20-point blowout defeat at New Mexico, UNLV returned home for a bit of a soft landing.
Both games last week were games the Rebels figured to win comfortably, combining both their dominant play at home this season and the quality of the opponents coming in. But the Rebels did so in a way that many wanted to see.
In the first halves of both games, UNLV reverted to its old defensive principles, executing numerous backcourt traps that helped stymie opposing offenses. In turn, they created turnovers that led to easy fast break points, pushed the tempo of the game and kept both Boise State and Air Force from getting many clean looks of their own. They also held dominant double-digit leads on both foes at halftime and were able to cruise home from there.
Combine that with solid offensive execution and shooting, and winning a road game doesn’t sound so difficult, right?
“I think we’ve got all the qualities that make a good team, and that should be able to translate on the road — We just haven’t done that yet,” sophomore forward Mike Moser said. “I think we just get lackadaisical, letting guys come back off of leads, whether it’s from not rebounding or being lazy on defense. Those things have to stop, and we’ve got to start that tomorrow.”
Moser added that UNLV’s top individual performers need to step up, too — Himself included.
The last time the Rebels hit the road — the loss at New Mexico — Moser had one of his least effective outings of the season, posting eight points and four rebounds, and disappearing from the action after hitting two 3-pointers in the opening minutes.
Also included in that mix is the trio of Oscar Bellfield, Anthony Marshall and Chace Stanback, who have all been up-and-down lately. All three, though, played exceptionally well and seemed to find their individual offensive rhythms during the quick home stand.
For as much emphasis as there is being placed on the defensive approach heading into Wednesday night, offensive efficiency will be key against one of the league’s stingiest defensive clubs. The Rams have been especially tough at home.
During a 6-0 run at home in league play, opponents are shooting just 37.1 percent from the floor and 28.6 percent from 3-point territory. They’re averaging 60.3 points per game — A number that is a bit skewed by an 89-point outburst from TCU in a double-overtime game that opened up league play.
Last time the Rams were at home, they put on one of the most impressive defensive performances of the season while knocking off New Mexico last Tuesday, 71-63.
Lobo forward Drew Gordon came in as one of the league’s hottest offensive producers, but had to scratch and claw his way to 13 points as scrappy CSU forward Pierce Hornung limited his clean offensive looks all night long. That stickiness spread, as open shots were a rare commodity for New Mexico.
UNLV can help avoid that by setting the tone and the pace early on.
“We have to go out there, stay together and be physical from the start of the game,” Bellfield said. “We can’t wait five or 10 minutes.”
Don’t expect a complacent group of Rebels to take the floor, though, as they collectively realize how fortunate they are to once again be in the mix for a regular season conference title and the top seed in the Mountain West Conference tournament after finding themselves two games out of first place just a week ago.
“Opportunity — No pressure, just opportunity,” Rice said. “It’s what you want as a program, to be in a situation where you control your own destiny. We’re in that situation now. It’s not just about the regular season, it’s about continuing to get better so we can continue to play as long as we possibly can in March.
“I told the guys yes, TCU (beat New Mexico), yes, Colorado State (beat New Mexico). New Mexico came back to the pack, but we’ve earned the right to play this week. We look at it as an opportunity for us.”
In a week where every game in Mountain West play will have some bearing on the final standings and tournament seeding, UNLV got its first bit of help on Tuesday night, with Wyoming downing TCU, 71-59, to secure its first 20-win season in nine years.
Aside from winning out, UNLV could need Colorado State, who entered the week a game behind TCU in the standings, to finish in fourth place in the event of a tie at the top come Saturday.
But, for all of the talk of potential tie-breakers, it could all be moot if UNLV doesn’t straighten out its road act on Wednesday.
“We’re definitely very lucky,” Moser said. “We’ve done what we’re supposed to do to get to this spot. As much as it’s on somebody else, it’s on us as well. We’ve just got to keep grinding, try to get these next two.”