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UNLV begins crucial stretch to avoid tumbling onto the bubble

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Like Disney movies, John Grisham novels and vapid reality TV shows, UNLV basketball seasons have lately followed a very predictable story arc.

First the Rebels storm to a strong start, raising hopes they can contend for a Mountain West title. Then they gradually fade during the meat of the conference season. And finally they reach a juncture where they must either put together a strong finishing kick or risk not hearing their name called on Selection Sunday.

At 18-7 overall and 6-5 in the Mountain West, UNLV has officially arrived at that crossroads this season despite a 12-2 record in non-conference play. The Rebels have been flattened by the three teams ahead of them in the Mountain West race, going 0-for-5 against BYU, San Diego State and Colorado State to slip to fourth place in the conference standings.

Although Tuesday night's home game against Air Force isn't altogether daunting, the next two games at fellow NCAA tournament hopefuls Colorado State and New Mexico are particularly critical.

A loss at Colorado State on Saturday would give the Rams a season sweep and all but ensure UNLV finishes no higher than fourth in the conference standings. A loss at New Mexico the following Wednesday would give the Lobos a split in the season series and also put them in position to leapfrog the Rebels in the standings.

The good news for the Rebels is that if the season ended today, they'd probably still be safely in the field. Most bracket projections have UNLV as a No. 9 seed at this point, not that it's any comfort to coach Lon Kruger.

"It's all speculation," Kruger said Monday on a conference call. "Every game it will change a little bit. It's that time of year where you start predicting, forecasting and slotting. Fans do that, and that's why it's a great time of year. But it means very little at this point. We have to focus on doing what we can do to get better."

What needs to happen for UNLV to get back to the level it was at in November when it defeated Wisconsin, Kansas State and Virginia Tech? The Rebels need to improve in several areas.

They need to stop relying on the 3-pointer down the stretch in close games because they're not a great outside shooting team. They need to develop some semblance of a consistent post game, whether it's from Brice Massamba, Carlos Lopez or Quintrell Thomas. And they need enigmatic wing Chace Stanback to consistently deliver scoring punch and not fade in and out as he's prone to do.

The Rebels should feel confident considering this is hardly the first time they've faced must-win games in mid-February.

After starting the 2008-09 season 13-2, UNLV lost nine of its final 17 games and exited the NIT in the first round. The Rebels had a similar 12-1 start last season yet likely needed a Mountain West title game appearance last March to make it back to the NCAA tournament again.

It's difficult to project exactly how many wins UNLV needs to feel safe this season, but a 4-1 record the next three weeks would probably be enough, especially if it includes a win at Colorado State.

UNLV certainly is still in decent position to make the NCAA tournament again. It just won't be as easy as it looked like six weeks ago.

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