Rebels find themselves in early conference 0-2 hole

San Diego State's experience and first-half 3-point shooting was too much for UNLV to overcome in a New Year's Eve 76-67 loss as the Rebels started Mountain West play 0-2.

LAS VEGAS — Call them the “Not Ready for Prime Time Team.”

With the entire nation looking in on CBS, save for Golden Knights fans and those who bet on TCU to beat Michigan in the national college football semifinals, UNLV’s basketball team was not able to embrace the spotlight against a San Diego State squad that is accustomed to such trappings.

That the Aztecs improved to 2-0 in the Mountain West (11-3 overall) with a 76-67 road win at the Thomas & Mack Center isn’t that surprising. Brian Dutcher’s teams are usually fundamentally sound, know how to play for each other and create duress for the opposition. 

What was surprising was how well San Diego State shot from the perimeter, particularly in the first half. The Aztecs made 11 3-point shots, eight in the first half as they built a 44-33 lead at intermission. That used to be the Runnin’ Rebels’ calling card. After all, they have made at least one trey since the NCAA starting keeping track of such stats back in 1985. 

But the silly streak aside, the fact UNLV struggled to guard the perimeter, failed to rebound at the defensive end and for the second straight game, had to expend a tremendous amount of energy following a double-digit halftime deficit should be cause for concern for coach Kevin Kruger and his players. It sure seemed to bother the majority of the season-high crowd of 7,249.

“We’re still figuring things out a bit trying to see what fits,” Kruger said. “We got off to a good start. Then we hit a stretch in the first half where we struggled offensively.”

At 0-2 in the Mountain West (11-3 overall) and a trip to The Pit next Saturday to face undefeated No. 22 New Mexico looming, UNLV is in danger of falling out of the conference race before it ever gets truly started. An 0-3 beginning will be extremely difficult to overcome for a team that was courting aspirations of contending for the title when the week began. And given the Mountain West has a lot of teams that can spring the upset on a given day (we see ya, Tim Miles and 2-0 San Jose State!), there aren’t a lot of gimmies on the schedule the rest of the way.

So if you’re Kruger and UNLV and you’re trying to build your at-large resume for the NCAA Basketball Committee, It’s circle-the-wagons time. The Rebels are in desperate need of a quick turnaround and it may not be as easy as wishing and hoping. That’s Dusty Springfield-type thinking.

No, the warts have been exposed. And let’s quit with the excuses of not having Elijah Parquet and Isaiah Cottrell, both who have been out with injuries. Yes, they’re missed but it means others need to step up and deliver. To use a hockey phrase, UNLV has had too many passengers so far in Mountain West play.

This is a poor rebounding team, not a great offensive team thanks to inconsistent shot-making and sometimes puzzling shot selection and one that commits its fair share of turnovers, even though it was leading the nation in turnovers forced and turnover margin as recently as a week ago and forced San Diego State into 22 miscues Saturday. Ironically, Iowa State, coached by former UNLV coach T.J. Otzelberger, has the distinction of leading the nation in those categories.

That 11-1 non conference record may have hid some of the warts. But now that we’re into league play, they’re there for everyone to see. It’s not like Kruger can make a trade and shore things up. He has to play the hand he’s dealt and perhaps try and tweak a few things between now and next weekend while staying true to the principles that gave UNLV its early-season success. 

The good thing is even if it comes down to three days in March, the Rebels’ NCAA hopes are far from kaput. Teams have been known to get hot. You see it every year in tournaments across the country. That’s why it’s called March Madness.

But if I’m Kruger, I don’t want to rely on that. I want my team to get back to finding a way to win now, not two-plus months from now. 

“We had a lot of fight and compete,” Kruger said. “We have to dust ourselves off and get ready for next week.”

Guard Luis Rodriguez, one of the few Rebels to show up Saturday and finished with a game-high 24 points, said: 

“We need to put our heads down and go to work and get back to being an aggressive and physical team. The biggest thing for us is to stay connected. There’s a lot of basketball to be played.”

Statistically, he’s right. But this team’s number to be focused on is One — which is the next game a week from now in Albuquerque.

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