Everyone in and around the UNLV men’s basketball program is breathing a little easier right now, after back-to-back road wins at Colorado State and New Mexico helped cement what will surely be the Rebels’ fourth NCAA tournament bid in five seasons. But anyone who says he wasn’t a little nervous about the Rebels’ postseason hopes a couple of weeks ago is probably lying.
With one regular season game remaining for the 22-7 Rebels—March 5 at struggling Utah—it appears Lon Kruger’s club will finish third in the Mountain West before hosting the league tournament the following week at the Thomas & Mack Center. BYU and San Diego State are both ranked in the Top 10 nationally and have grabbed national headlines all season, but UNLV heads into the postseason with as much steam behind it as anyone else in the conference.
Here’s a closer look at exactly what has gone right for the Rebels during the late-season surge:
UNLV finally broke out of its miserable, teamwide shooting slump. The Rebels came out of their shell in the second half of the 46-34 win at Colorado State, hitting 7-of-13 3-point attempts, four of the makes by junior guard Oscar Bellfield. It has all snowballed in the right direction since.
Though he likely won’t be a first team All-Mountain West selection for a second straight season, Tre’Von Willis is finally looking like the guy who carried UNLV for much of the 2009-10 season. A tumultuous offseason that included an arrest and right knee surgery kept him from picking up where he left off, but he’s been as valuable as anyone of late. In UNLV’s past two games, he’s scored 40 points on 14-of-21 shooting. He finally has the bounce back in his step and is looking like a guy closing in on the end of his collegiate career.
UNLV appears to have found its anchor in the middle, with Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas playing up to the potential the coaching staff saw while pursuing him two summers ago. He’s shaken off the rust from a year off; he’s defending without picking up fouls; he’s rebounding aggressively; and he’s gaining confidence on the offensive end. His 19 points and 13 rebounds in the overtime win at New Mexico marked the signature performance of his young collegiate career.
So where does this story end? Come Selection Sunday, UNLV should find itself somewhere in the middle of the NCAA tournament bracket. Teams hope to be peaking at this time of the year, and the Rebels are doing just that. A nice postseason run is within reach.