As UNLV heads to Albuquerque in search of its first NCAA tournament win since 2008, the Rebels' favorable draw as a six-seed in Albuqeurque, N.M., on Sunday gave reason to think a little bigger.
Winning just one game in the NCAA tournament would mark the 2011-12 season as a smashing success. Winning twice? Nothing's guaranteed, but it can definitely be done. And if they can, it could potentially set up the program's long-awaited first meeting with Duke since the 1991 national semifinal shocker.
UNLV is hoping to make a return to the tournament's second weekend for the first time since 2007, and here's a closer look at what is standing in its way ...
NO. 11 COLORADO
Résumé: 23-11 overall ... 11-7 in Pac-12 (fifth place) ... Won Pac-12 tournament ... RPI: 60 ... Record vs. RPI Top-100: 7-8 ... Strength of Schedule: 72 ... Notable wins: vs. Washington, vs. Cal ... Bad losses: vs. Wyoming, vs. Stanford, at Oregon State.
Who's the star: It's senior guard Carlon Brown, who UNLV is very familiar with. Brown, a Riverside, Calif., native who was recruited by former Rebels coach Lon Kruger at one point, played in the Mountain West for Utah for three seasons before transferring following the 2009-10 season. The 6-foot-5 senior was Colorado's leading scorer this season (12.6 ppg), but can do lots of little things beyond that to hurt an opponent. For one, he's a solid defender and has elite leaping ability, which makes him a threat off of the bounce or on the defensive glass. When at Utah, he always seemed to play well against UNLV, too, averaging 15.3 points in three meetings with the Rebels as a junior. He's hot right now, too, after earning MVP honors in the Pac-12 tournament.
Who's the x-factor: That would be freshman guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who was a former top target of the previous UNLV coaching staff out of Woodland Hills (Calif.) Taft High. He was a two-year teammate there of Rebel junior Justin Hawkins, who even hosted Dinwiddie on his recruiting trip to UNLV as a high school senior. The crafty 6-foot-5 frosh plays more off the ball than the point, but has shot the ball extremely well this season, especially from deep (43.6 percent).
Why it's a good matchup for UNLV: The Rebels are simply more battle-tested coming in. The Buffs did not necessarily play a tough schedule, and competed in what was easily the weakest of the so-called 'power' conferences. UNLV holds a slight edge, too, in terms of depth and overall talent when placing the rosters side-by-side. The Rebels should also benefit from Colorado's lack of a dominant inside game. UNLV has been exposed at times by teams with a wealth of active bigs who can own the glass, most recently on Friday night against New Mexico. The biggest threat Colorado has inside is 6-foot-7 sophomore Andre Roberson, a first team All-Pac-12 performer who averaged 11.6 points and 11.1 rebounds a game this season. He and UNLV's Mike Moser could have quite a battle.
Why it's a bad matchup for UNLV: How the altitude at The Pit plays into things could be interesting, as Colorado plays the bulk of its games — and holds all of its practices — well above sea level. Also, UNLV is dealing with a team that is simply hot. Before last weekend, Colorado was nowhere near the bubble. Then the Buffs won four games in four days. Meanwhile, UNLV has lost five of its last nine games coming into the tournament. Will momentum be a factor? When the season reaches this point and the playing field evens out, momentum can mean quite a bit.
NO. 3 BAYLOR
Résumé: 27-7 overall ... 12-6 in Big 12 (third place) ... Reached Big 12 tournament title game (lost to Missouri) ... Started season 17-0 ... RPI: 8 ... Record vs. RPI Top-100: 12-7 ... Strength of Schedule: 10 ... Notable wins: vs. San Diego State, at BYU, vs. Saint Mary's (neutral), vs. West Virginia (neutral), at Kansas State, vs. Iowa State, vs. Kansas (neutral) ... Bad losses: None.
Who's the star: The sophomore with the sweet nickname: Perry Jones III, otherwise known by the kids as PJ3. The versatile 6-foot-11 wing averages 14 points and 7.7 rebounds a game, can score from anywhere on the floor and play any of the game's five positions. He's had a penchant this season for disappearing in big games, but put plenty of those concerns to rest with an impressive showing in last weekend's Big 12 tournament. In Kansas City, he averaged 21.7 points and 9.7 rebounds a game over three days. He'll likely be a lottery pick in this June's NBA draft, and he has a great, inspiring story, too.
Who's the x-factor: The difference between last year's underachieving Baylor squad that missed the NCAA tournament entirely and this year's group? Quality point guard play and an elite-level outside shooter. The point guard should sound familiar, as it's Desert Pines High grad Pierre Jackson, who starred for two seasons at College of Southern Idaho before transferring to Baylor. The 5-foot-10 Vegas native averages 13.3 points and 5.8 assists per game. And though he can be a bit turnover prone at times, he's only had eight in the team's last four games coming into the NCAA tourney. He was a former recruiting target of Lon Kruger's at UNLV who went elsewhere once that staff headed to Oklahoma. Meanwhile, the gunner is Boston College transfer Brady Heslip. He's a 43.5 percent 3-point shooter who averages 2.5 makes per game from deep.
Why it's a good matchup for UNLV: When Baylor is 'on' — making sound decisions, working the ball to the basket, playing calm and owning the glass — the Bears as unbeatable as any team in the country. But following that lethal start to the season, more and more of their 'off' nights have been sprinkled in. If the two meet, UNLV will have the ability to use its wealth of strong perimeter defenders to potentially set backcourt traps and force turnovers. Baylor ranked just seventh in the Big 12 this season in turnover margin. UNLV has struggled in games that are slowed down to strictly a half-court pace, but Baylor likes to run. If UNLV is hitting its outside shots, it could turn into a true heavyweight war.
Why it's a bad matchup for UNLV: Size. Plain and simple. Baylor has tons of it at almost every position, and the Bears are a dominant rebounding team, with Perry Jones III and active senior forward Quincy Acy both ranking among the Big 12's top six individual rebounders. They also have a deeper bench and can throw high-level athletes at you in waves. But back to the front-court, Acy is the exact type of big man UNLV has had fits with this season. An explosive athlete at the power forward spot despite standing just 6-foot-7, he is a maniac on the offensive glass and if multiple Rebels aren't hustling to the glass on every shot, they could get dominated in that department in a hurry. Acy is essentially a bigger, much more explosive version of Colorado State's Pierce Hornung, who killed UNLV late on the offensive glass in last month's loss in Fort Collins.
NO. 14 SOUTH DAKOTA STATE
Résumé: 27-7 overall ... 15-3 Summit League (second place) ... Won Summit League tournament ... RPI: 42 ... Record vs. RPI Top-100: 3-2 ... Strength of Schedule: 179 ... Notable wins: at Washington, vs. Oral Roberts ... Bad losses: at South Dakota.
Who's the star: Without question, it's 6-foot-4 junior guard Nate Wolters. Wolters getting hot is likely South Dakota's only shot at pulling off the upset here. If you've never heard of Wolters and are looking for a comparison, think of a poor man's Jimmer Fredette. Wolters is the nation's ninth-leading scorer, but does the brunt of his work from inside the 3-point arc. There isn't a ton of explosiveness on the Jackrabbits' roster, but they like to try an play an up-and-down brand of ball, and it only works if Wolters is going to work.
Who's the x-factor: South Dakota State has a chance to spread Baylor's defense out if 6-foot-8 sophomore Jordan Dykstra gets going from the outside. He's the team's top 3-point threat (48.6 percent), and is 17-of-26 from long range in their last seven games.
Why it's a good matchup for UNLV: As is the case for Baylor in the first round, UNLV could have an opportunity to overwhelm South Dakota State with its athletes. The Jackrabbits can score big and like to go up and down, but haven't played a team with long athletes who can stick to their outside shooters quite as well as Baylor can. Therefore, it feels like a longshot for them to make it past their first game.
Why it's a bad matchup for UNLV: If the upset on Thursday is pulled off, South Dakota State can be just as dangerous to UNLV, given its prowess from 3-point range. The Jackrabbits are tied for 16th in the nation in 3-point field goal percentage as a team (39.3; UNLV is tied for 58th at 37), are 13th in 3-pointers made (274: UNLV is 10th with 282) and is tied for 28th in 3-pointers made per game (8.1; UNLV is tied for 19th with 8.3). With a quality penetrator like Wolters, he could have an opportunity to find shooters regularly on the perimeter against UNLV, who has had its struggles all season against defending the 3-point arc. They've done damage with it to teams with athletic advantages over them before, too. In a 92-73 stunner at Washington earlier this season, South Dakota State went 10-of-16 from long range.