Sunday, October 9, 2011

Playing down to the competition - ugly wins and losses (season recap part 3)

You’ve guessed it, we’re talking about the conference schedule last season this week – and it was a heartbreaker.

UNLV, still ranked #25 at the beginning of the conference schedule had a home opener – a good way to start against familiar foes. Unfortunately, the Mountain West was competitive as ever last season, and in the way were two teams ranked and performing better than the Rebels – the BYU Cougars (ranked at the time #15), and the SDSU Aztecs (ranked #6 when we first played them).

BYUs rivalry with UNLV was among the highest of any programs vs. the Rebels. A UNLV/BYU game normally sold out the arena – and that was when the Cougars were just an above average team. On January 5th in front of a sellout crowd the Cougars did something they hadn’t in a long time – win at the Thomas and Mack. The Rebels kept it close in the first half, but then floundered and let the game get out of hand. Anthony Marshall and Brice Massamba had good games, everyone else was sub-par. More was going to be needed to beat the team that had only lost once – oddly to Cal. Besides not having Rebels offense clicking on all cylinders, Lon Kruger’s defense wasn’t equipped to prevent three-point capitalism. Jackson Emery was 6-9 from the arc, Jimmer Fredete was 7-13 from long range. While tragic, it’s doubtful that any team could have beaten BYU that night with those two lighting it up from the perimeter. The final was 89-77. With the loss, our Rebels fell out of the rankings.

The follow-up to the heartbreaker was a easy home game against TCU, who played sub-par non-conference basketball and whose real passion is clearly football. An easy 83-49 victory was scored at their expense. Optimism returned as our offensive production was solid with UNLV shooting 51% and TCU 31%. The first road game, a difficult one, was on the horizon.

Traveling to Viejas arena in San Diego had changed from previous years. The party school had hired a real coach, Steve Fisher, and were playing serious basketball in large part by a sophomore phenom and a collection of seasoned senior role players. Not only that, they were selling out games and had an enthusiastic fan base. Because of their success, as well as the Rebels, the game was featured on CBS college sports in HD. Man was it a nail biter. The Rebels had shown signs of greatness earlier in the season, but in this matchup UNLV played terribly – but so did #6 SDSU. The Rebels jacked up threes, bunches upon bunches and the result was that of a rigged carnival game – 1 of 18 from three-point-land as a team. We assumed the Rebels would be out rebounded, we were. What many had not assumed was that UNLV would be hanging right with SDSU till the very end. While it was another loss, at least it showed that the Rebels could hang with the #6 team in their gym, no small feat.

One step forward, two steps back seemed to be the theme of the conference schedule as well. After the close one in San Diego,  the Rebels traveled to play Air Force, and nearly gave away what should have been a guaranteed win. It took a late game (19-2) comeback for the Rebels to get the victory. Three point shooting woes remained, with the Rebels shooting a mere 25% from the arc. An ugly win in the low scoring affair, the Rebels would come back to Las Vegas haggard with their confidence shaken.

 Before the seasons started, most had it predicted BYU, SDSU, UNLV, and New Mexico as the teams prepared to make noise and perhaps all make the tournament. Those didn’t figure on Colorado State also being competitive. No matter how good or how bad teams are, if the bad team plays excellent and the good team plays very poorly, the bad team is likely to win. In one of the most unexpected losses of the season, the Rebels lost a home game to the CSU Rams. This loss really had people questioning the viability of the Rebels NCAA playoff chances.  The Rebels shot a miserable 13% from three, and never lead the game. The final score in this ugly game was 78-63, one of the worst home losses in recent memory.

In what was assumed to be a more difficult task the Rebels next faced New Mexico at the T&M. It was widely accepted that to make the tournament we needed to win this game or rely on sweeping the MWC tournament. This was one of the better games of the conference schedule, it wasn’t brick-fest and Oscar Bellfield got to be a hero – a roll he’s played well throughout his career. This game seesawed till the final minutes, when the unthinkable happened for the Lobos. UNLV trailed 61-60 when Willis intercepted Tony Snell's pass and was intentionally fouled. Willis made the two free throws, and Oscar Bellfield made 1 of 2 free throws with 18 seconds left to make it 63-61.The Rebels won due to luck or destiny, and thankfully shot a respectable 46% from three.

The Rebels first meeting with Wyoming, another team filling out the bottom of the MWC. The Rebels struggled in the first half, trailing by eight but righted the ship in the second half. The final score was 74-65. Shooting woes for the Rebels remained, but were largely contained in first half shooting.

Utah was just lousy last season. The Utes, a team normally stocked with 7’ centers, became fodder for Quintrell Thomas’s breakout game. He tallied 16 rebounds and 15 points, and the Rebels won the game 67-54. Carlos Lopez also nearly had a double double, so it just wasn’t Utah’s season. More evidence that even though Utah sucked, we might have lost this one – our shooting. UNLV shot almost 37% from the field, and only 16% from three. Luckily, Utah shot poorly as well. An ugly win to say the least, but congrats to our centers.

While the Rebs floundered, their next opponent, #8 BYU maintained the excellence they started with. Meeting them in Provo turned out to be as damaging as the previous meeting, they dominated us, winning 78-64.Poor shooting doomed the Rebels, on 30% shooting and 26% 3pointers. To make matters worse, BYU was nearly perfect from the charity stripe. Hopefully Coach Rice can instill that kind of work ethic in our players – make the free throws, their supposed to be easy, that’s why they are called ‘free’. This came was never that close.

UNLV’s second meeting, this time in Ft. Worth, TX,  had the feeling of a practice gym match. Due to weather issues, many failed to show up. While the reported attendance was “3813” the real number was more like 500, including the band and staff. UNLV won the game with their most impressive offensive outing of the conference schedule, with 94 points, but let the hapless Horned Frogs score 79 points. That’s not UNLV defense, especially against such a bad team in an odd atmosphere. Everyone was at least hopeful that the offensive production would continue when we faced SDSU next.

The first outing showed that SDSU appeared beatable by the Rebels – and that was in their gym. In another ugly loss, the Rebels lost another close one to #6 SDSU on our court, 63-57. The game was close almost all of the way, and it was most frustrating because UNLV could have legitimately beaten the Aztecs, both the previous time and this time. Here’s two things that the Rebels could have done better and won the game #1 make your free throws, 63% at home is simply unacceptable. #2 – stop shooting three pointers when you only make 1 of 15 (6%). I realize that SDSU has intimidating inside players who can throw a block party at a moment’s notice – but don’t get lazy and sit out on the arc all day when you’re one of the worst three point shooting squads in the NCAA. Unfortunately, the ball didn’t bounce our way.

The following game vs. Air Force was an ugly affair for both teams, but someone had to win and someone had to lose. Tallying a remarkable 49 points, the Rebels won the game (Air Force only had 42). This was painful to watch, I know they say a win is a win, but come on – it seemed more like a 0-0 tie in soccer. The Rebels only shot one more three pointer than against SDSU, this time going 2-14 from the arc. We were lucky that Air Force stunk like few before them have.

Fortunately for the fans, the Coaching staff didn’t see it as ‘a win is a win’ and decided drastic times call for drastic measures. But most calculations, the Rebels needed to win the final games of the Regular season to have a legitimate shot at an at-large bid. That meant avenging Colorado State @ Colorado, beating New Mexico @ the pit, and then two easy ones – Utah and Wyoming. Given the way the Rebels were shooting the ball (terribly), that would be a tall order. The staff banished the players to non-UNLV threads during practice. They said that the players were not representing UNLV basketball well, and they didn’t deserve to wear the uniform. Given how bad the Rebels had played and how fortunate our record was in spite of the bad basketball, few were convinced that this psychological move would right the ship and produce wins over the final four games. We were wrong, that (or luck) did the trick.

The Rams and the Rebels had been fighting over third place in the MWC, and for either team to win the matchup would swing that place considerably given the amount of basketball left to play. The Rebels produced shooting an amazing 42 % from the arc and 37% for the game. Fortunately for the Rebels, CSU played bad basketball, and we held on for a 68-61 victory. Looking back, had we lost this game, but won the other three, our tournament hopes may have been short lived – very important win.

The next tough challenge was New Mexico, in The Pit. Even though the Lobos were still rebuilding, wining in the atmosphere of The Pit is a very difficult task, one that the Rebels accomplished in winning form. Many heroes to this game, Tre’von Willis with his 25 points, Oscar Bellfield for tieing the game and forcing overtime at 67-67, and Bellfield and Quintrell Thomas for scoring points in overtime and getting the win. This was probably the most entertaining game of the season, with overtime and 9 lead changes. UNLV’s 3 point shooting was much improved at a scorching 47%. It was a fantastic win, and potentially the hardest of the final four contests needed to secure an at large bid. The Rebels powered through to a 77-74 overtime win.

The final two, Wyoming and Utah, were games where the Rebels played like team people anticipated they would be coming into conference play. The Rebels finished beat Wyoming 90-77 at home, and Utah 78-58 away. Three point shooting was incredible, field goal percentage in general fantastic. In these two final wins the Rebels finally did not have to win ugly, and did not play down to their competition.

With the post season upon them, the question in everyone’s mind was which Rebel team would show up – the team who had struggled so mightily to make a shot, or the one who defended with the best of them and dominated?

Next week:
Tournament time  - What effort was in Vegas, stayed in Vegas

Following those, comes the season preview!
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