The feeling in the air was just different this time around.
Two years ago, when UNLV was announced as an eight-seed in the NCAA tournament, the Rebels were just happy to be in the field of 68 at all.
Last year, when the eight-seed was handed to the Rebels again, they felt they deserved better, and the celebration was rather muted.
On Sunday, they earned a six-seed in the South region — their highest since earning a one-seed in 1991 — and the appreciation was visible on the players’ faces within a second.
“Coming in here, I was kind of preparing for the worst, because I didn’t want to be disappointed,” sophomore forward Mike Moser said. “Being a six-seed was above our expectations.”
Added junior guard Justin Hawkins: “I feel like the NCAA gave us some love. We’ve just got to take care of business now.”
Yes, UNLV, on paper, may have gotten the friendliest draw of any of the four Mountain West Conference teams to make the tournament. But, as the Rebels learned each of the last two years, nothing is given when the season reaches this point.
UNLV (26-7) will tip-off at 6:57 p.m. Thursday night at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M., against surprise Pac-12 tournament champion Colorado (23-11) — an 11-seed that wasn’t even close to the NCAA tourney bubble before winning four games in four days in Los Angeles. The game will be televised on truTV, and it marks the UNLV program’s fifth NCAA tourney bid in six seasons.
The winner will move on to play Saturday against whoever advances from a match-up between three-seed Baylor (27-7) and 14-seed South Dakota State (27-7). Whoever emerges from the pod heads to Atlanta the following weekend.
Besides the fact that the Rebels match-up well with the Buffaloes, there are other logistics to the draw that made Sunday’s news pleasant.
First-year coach Dave Rice admitted that Albuquerque was the site he’d hoped his team would be sent to for the first weekend of the tournament, mostly because of its proximity, which should make for a better turnout from UNLV fans than the team has had in its last two trips — to Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Okla. The Rebels should also have a decent level of support from the local New Mexico fans that venture to the arena for Thursday’s evening session of games in a show of Mountain West Conference solidarity.
Also, playing at The Pit gives the team a level of venue familiarity that the other three teams in its pod won’t have.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an advantage, but you’re comfortable with the surroundings,” junior guard Anthony Marshall said. “It’s going to be loud and hostile up in there. I think we’re going to play well in there, having already played there, but I don’t think it’s going to be any kind of an advantage.”
One edge Colorado might have is when it comes to the altitude factor in Albuquerque, as Tad Boyle’s club battles it for much of the season.
What also makes this match-up intriguing, though, is a bit of familiarity between the two rosters involving connections to a pair of Buffs — senior guard Carlon Brown and freshman guard Spencer Dinwiddie.
Brown transferred to Colorado before last season after spending the first three years of his college career at Utah — a former Mountain West adversary of UNLV’s.
The Riverside, Calif., native was at one point a recruiting target for former Rebels coach Lon Kruger, and especially later in his career as a Ute, saved some of his final work for UNLV. In three games against the Rebels in the 2009-10 campaign, before transferring, he averaged 15.3 points against UNLV.
This season, Brown led the Buffs in scoring at 12.6 ppg, and the explosive leaper was also named the Pac-12 tournament’s MVP after averaging 15.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and shooting 50 percent from the floor over the four-day run.
As for Dinwiddie, he was another former recruiting target of the Kruger staff, and they viewed him as their potential point guard of the future following Oscar Bellfield’s graduation.
However, Dinwiddie chose Colorado over UNLV and Harvard, as the opportunity to make a bigger impact right away at a Pac-12 program was too much to turn down. He took advantage of it, too, starting all 34 games this year as a freshman and averaging 10.2 points per game. He scored 14 points in Colorado’s Pac-12 title game victory over Arizona, and made the conference’s all-freshman team.
Dinwiddie was a two-year teammate of UNLV guard Justin Hawkins at Woodland Hills (Calif.) Taft High, and Hawkins even hosted Dinwiddie when he took an official visit to campus as a high school senior.
The program as a whole has made major strides since Boyle came over from Northern Colorado before last season. In his first campaign in Boulder, Colorado went 24-14 and was one of the more notable snubs from the NCAA tournament field, eventually getting to the semifinals of the NIT. They’re not particularly deep and the team’s strength is in the back-court, though sophomore forward Andre Roberson (11.6 ppg, 11.2 rpg) did enough in carrying the team’s front-court efforts to earn first team All-Pac-12 honors.
“I was at home yesterday — I would have rather been at the Thomas & Mack Center, figuring out how to beat San Diego State — but I watched the (Pac-12 title) game and watched Colorado all year long,” Rice said. “I told our guys before we came out here that we earned the right to be in the NCAA tournament. We earned the right. We need to be excited, which we are.”
The excitement might have been a bit more muted around the Mountain West, given the draws some of UNLV’s league foes received on Sunday.
New Mexico, who won a share of the conference’s regular season title and on Saturday ended its blitzing of the league tournament with a dominating victory over San Diego State, earned a five-seed in Portland, Ore., in the West region.
It’s not so much the seed that appeared to irk New Mexico coach Steve Alford on CBS when the bid was announced, but rather who the Lobos drew. They’ll face 12-seed Long Beach State — one of the most dangerous, battle-tested mid-majors in America — on Thursday afternoon.
As for San Diego State, the league’s co-regular season champ, like UNLV, drew a six-seed in the Midwest region. However, their draw wasn’t nearly as friendly as far as travel is concerned. The Aztecs, who finished a game ahead of the Rebels in the league standings, were sent to Columbus, Ohio, where they’ll take on North Carolina State on Friday afternoon, then the winner between three-seed Georgetown and 14-seed Belmont if they advance. It’s a situation that felt eerily similar to two years ago, when after winning the Mountain West tournament, they were given an 11-seed and shipped all the way to Providence, R.I.
Finally, the feel-good Mountain West story of the day was Colorado State, who earned an 11-seed in the West region, marking the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2003. The Rams won’t complain about a thing, even though they’re traveling to face six-seed Murray State in what could essentially feel like a home game for the Racers in Louisville, Ky., on Thursday afternoon. When the Rams’ bid was announced, the hundreds of fans who came to watch the selection show at the Thomas & Mack Center gave a round of applause.
Rice felt like what UNLV got was what it deserved.
“I think the biggest thing for us is we played a very tough conference schedule, and with four teams from the Mountain West getting in it speaks volumes to the quality of the conference,” he said. “But we did the things that the committee always says are important. We played a non-conference schedule that was competitive, and we not only played them, but we won’t a number of those games. We feel like we were rewarded with a six-seed.”
In the end, it’s likely that UNLV’s resounding November upset of then-No. 1 North Carolina held a ton of weight, especially considering that UNC got the top seed in the Midwest region. And their two non-conference losses — to Wisconsin and Wichita State — came on the road against teams also in the NCAA tournament field.
The debate over UNLV’s seed outside of Las Vegas may continue for a day or so, who knows? But on campus, preparations for Colorado begin immediately.
The Rebels will practice both Monday and Tuesday before leaving town Tuesday night for Albuquerque.
The team’s veterans have talked for weeks about the importance of getting the program’s first NCAA tournament win since 2008. They’ll go for that victory on Thursday without the feeling that they were done wrong by the selection committee once again.
“I think over the years, maybe we felt like we’ve gotten jipped or whatever, but I don’t think that was the case at all this year,” Moser said. “I think we really earned this seed, deservedly so.”