“Almost” has defined UNLV’s season

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY
The Sporting Tribune's Will Despart writes about the unfortunate reality of UNLV's season.

LAS VEGAS — The word of the season for the Runnin’ Rebels has been “almost”. They almost beat St. Mary’s in Phoenix. Almost picked up their second ranked win of the season last week against a Utah State team that is now No. 16 in the country. And on Friday night they almost picked up what would have been another signature win on the road against Colorado State. UNLV established such control in each of those games that it is unfathomable they lost all three. Had they won even two of them, they would still have outside hopes for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Even with the Southern debacle to start the year.

The unfortunate reality is now this. UNLV needs to pull off an all-time run in the conference tournament and secure the Mountain West’s automatic bid if they want to get into the big dance. It’s an especially tall task in the Mountain West this season in particular, as the conference is vying for a potential six bids to the NCAA tournament. This would potentially be more than both the ACC and the BIG 10, as noted by Jon Rothsein of CBS Sports.

Is UNLV capable of pulling off a run with the roster they have? I believe so. But it’s going to be far more difficult than Rebels fans online and even the national analysts who have started to fall for the team would think. The pressure in that situation would be immense. Especially for guys like the Boone twins, Luis Rodriguez and Justin Webster, whose college careers would essentially end with a single conference tournament loss. Sure, they are in contention for an NIT berth but no college basketball player wants to end their college career playing in the NIT.

The loss at Colorado State on Friday didn’t really change the scope of UNLV’s season. Their fate was decided before that. It still stung though, if for no other reason than the fact that it was another “almost” moment for the team in a year that has been defined by them. It also didn’t help their hopes of finishing top five in conference play, which would make a potential conference tournament run one game easier.

The schedule eases up for UNLV in their next handful of games. Matchups against Fresno State, Air Force and San Jose State will surely treat them better than the top-of-the-conference gauntlet did to start Mountain West play. They aren’t easy wins, but they are games that UNLV needs to have if they are serious at making a run in the conference tournament.

My prediction? I genuinely don’t have one. I think this team could run the table and win the conference and I think think it’s just as feasible they lose in the opening round to Air Force or something. I don’t know with this team, and anyone who tells you they do is lying.