Anthony Marshall and UNLV reached the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference by beating Air Force. (Julie Jacobson/AP)
LAS VEGAS -- That UNLV is loaded with talent is not a new storyline. Nor is the Rebels' ongoing quest for consistency, which after 32 games still hasn't manifested itself with any regularity. But the confluence of events that helped fuel the Rebels' 72-56 defeat of Air Force in the Mountain West quarterfinals hint that maybe, possibly, just in the nick of time, UNLV might finally, possibly, be finding itself.
First, the caveats. Air Force was severely hindered in this game when it lost star guard Michael Lyons after just 92 seconds to a knee injury. Soon after, the Falcons lost starting center Taylor Broekhuis, who took several blows to the head and left the game with a cut chin and some "wooziness," according to Falcons head coach Dave Pilipovich. Even at full strength, the Falcons can't match the size and skill of the Rebels (though UNLV barely won in overtime at home and got drilled at Clune Arena during the regular-season series). So it's a little premature to believe UNLV finally had a consistency epiphany based on the surface result against this particular roster.
The big developments were buried in the details. Anthony Bennett looked like Surefire NBA Lottery Pick Anthony Bennett for the first time since he suffered a nerve injury to his shoulder in late February. He ran the floor and finished numerous times for dunks, totaling an easy 23 points on 10-for-14 shooting. The related story is that, for the first time since Mike Moser dislocated his elbow in December, UNLV started Bennett as the de facto five and Moser at the four. Moser has looked uncomfortable this season spending larger amounts of time as a small forward. Back in his better role, Moser had nine points and 10 rebounds (all defensive), and the Rebels looked fluid and cohesive at both ends for large chunks of the game.
"Mike helps us so much at the four because of how we want to play," Rice said. "We want to get out in transition, we want to be defensively on the ball, and have four guys, including Mike, bring the ball up the floor.
"We want to be the Runnin' Rebels," Rice added. "We want to be a good transition team, and when he's getting defensive rebounds and bringing it, it just changes our team."
Rice knew from the start of the season that Birch's presence after the first semester would create significant lineup challenges. There have been season-long concerns in the backcourt, where multiple guys play out of position, most notably starting point guard Anthony Marshall, who's done a credible job but isn't a pure distributor. Moser's injury and slow re-implementation complicated things in the frontcourt, and Bennett's recent ailment prolonged the shuffling. Now, after spending much the of the season ramming different square pegs into round holes, Rice seems to have settled on where he started the season. He mentioned that he would have gone with this lineup Saturday had it not been Senior Day, and after seeing it against today, believes this may be the best answer going forward.
"Some of my goals, some of my thoughts about how we were going to play, who was going to play in what spot, didn't materialize because certain guys just couldn't play those positions," Rice said. "It just wasn't best for our team."
Whether it should have taken Rice and his staff thing long to figure things out is irrelevant at this point. If this is the final answer, the last roll of the proverbial dice, the question remains: Can we really trust the Rebels after months and months of documented inconsistency? Even the Rebels themselves aren't 100 percent sure. Bennett smiled in a postgame interview when asked whether he and his teammates ever know which Rebels team appears, saying "Sometimes, I don't even know. I expect us to show up every night, but sometimes it hasn't been like that."
That's why, when everyone will be focused on what was an objectively good effort, even against a shorthanded team, the real test for this team will be Friday night (and possibly Saturday night). The Rebels are so good at home that the game results aren't the most important part of this. It's about the effort and the consistency that UNLV fans want to see. They have to be able to put together multiple good performances together under tournament pressure. Can UNLV deliver that?
"We have to," Rice said. "That's the only response that there can be. The good thing for us is we hung in there together through some tough stretches, and we're still fighting and we're still playing."