By Jesse Granger

(Editors note: Jesse Granger is a Las Vegas-based freelance reporter who has worked for Associated Press and Orange County Register this College Basketball season. He is also a columnist for the Rebel Yell. Jesse compiled this capsule at the conclusion of the Mountain West Conference tournament, but due to computer issues, we were not able to load it overnight. We apologize for the delay in this preview of Mountain West teams making the Big Dance, but wanted our readers to see Jesse’s insight)

What does New Mexico’s 64-58 win over San Diego State mean for each side’s NCAA Tournament futures?

With the Mountain West in the midst of a down year, the league will likely only receive two bids to the big dance – New Mexico and San Diego State.   The two teams faced off for the third time in three weeks Saturday, with the Lobos coming out on top to claim their third straight Mountain West Tournament title.

The win boosts New Mexico’s stock to the highest its been since the pre-season, and has the Lobos in prime position to make the post-season run that fell through their fingers in 2013.

The loss will no doubt drop San Diego State from its No. 8 spot in the rankings, but the Aztecs were far from the only top seeded team to fall short in their conference tournament this week.

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New Mexico’s Cameron Bairstow (Photo courtesy Mountain West/NCAA)

New Mexico

Record: 27-6

Last 10: 9-1

RPI: 18

What Craig Neal thinks: “Hopefully you beat the eighth ranked team in the country, and you were 20, and there were a lot of teams that lost from 12 to 20 before us.  It’s all about seeding, all about the draw, so hopefully it will help us.  One thing I can say is I got a pretty good basketball team.”

What will happen: New Mexico’s win not only gives the Lobos the automatic bid into the tournament, but it gives them a legitimate claim as the best team coming out of the conference.  In three meetings with the Aztecs, the Lobos dominated 110 of the 120 minutes played, and would have swept San Diego State if not for a last minute run in Viejas.

The Lobos however, are lacking when it comes to quality non-conference wins.  Their only top-50 RPI win outside of San Diego State was a 63-54 win over Cincinnati.  New Mexico split with in-state rival New Mexico State, which doesn’t help its case, and their next best win is against Marquette who is a far cry from the Big East contender from years past.

The bottom line is New Mexico will likely fall somewhere in the five to seven range.  The Lobos should avoid the dreaded eight-nine matchup that would pit them against a top seed in the following round, but could be punished for their past failures in the big dance.

Possible 1st Round Matchups for New Mexico

North Dakota State- R

PI: 36

Nebraska- RPI: 45

Xavier- RPI: 46

Providence- RPI: 50

Southern Methodist- RPI: 55

Thames

San Diego State’s Xavier Thames (Photo Courtesy Mountain West/NCAA)

Record: 29-3

Last 10: 8-2

RPI: 14

What Steve Fisher thinks: “I would hope that we would be a top-four seed.  I can’t tell you.  I got no magic wand in terms of who’s going to put us where, but I think our whole season we’ve done a pretty good job of going out and competing and winning, and winning in different environments against different leagues.”

“My hope is that both of us can get into this next tournament and win, and prove that we have teams in the Mountain West Conference that compete not only within the league, but can compete nationally with anybody.”

What will happen: Despite losing to New Mexico two, and nearly three, out of the three games this year, San Diego State owns the more impressive resume.  The Aztecs were the more consistent team, and racked up major signature wins early in the season.

San Diego State’s resume trumps the Lobos with a single game.  The Aztecs 61-57 win over the No. 10 Kansas Jayhawks in Lawrence is one of the best non-conference wins in all of the NCAA.  Kansas is currently battling for a two or three seed, and is heralded as one of the favorites to win it all.  Couple that with an impressive 86-80 neutral site win over No. 14 Creighton and the Aztecs have plenty of wins over quality opposition.

San Diego State’s record speaks for itself, and the Fisher will likely get his wish.  To snub the Aztecs of a top-four seed would be criminal by the committee.  The ceiling isn’t much higher than a four, but the chance to play in San Diego for the opening games could be an even bigger prize for the Aztecs.

Possible 1st Round Matchups for San Diego State

Manhattan- RPI: 62

New Mexico State- RPI: 78

Tulsa- RPI: 81

Western Michigan- RPI: 82

Mercer- RPI: 83

No. 4 UNLV (20-12, 11-8 Mountain West) vs. No. 1 San Diego State (28-3, 16-2)

WHEN: Friday 6 p.m. TV: CBS Sports Network RADIO: ESPN Radio 1100/98.9 FM

SEASON SERIES: San Diego State swept the regular-season series, winning by 11 on Jan. 18 in San Diego, 63-52, and on March 5 in Las Vegas, 73-64.

RoscoeKEY PLAYERS: UNLV: Dejean-Jones (13.7 ppg.), Birch (11.7 ppg., 10.1 rpg., 3.7  bpg.) and Smith (11.2 ppg. 11.1 rpg.)  SDST: Thames (16.9 ppg., 3.1 apg., 39.6 3FG%), Davis (8 ppg., 10.0 rpg.), Shepard (12.3 ppg., 5.2 rpg.)

KEY FACTOR in this game for UNLV: Bryce Dejean-Jones rose to the occasion in the quarterfinals against Wyoming, coming off the bench to score 22 points, to lead the Runnin’ Rebels to a 71-67 win. The Rebels will need their star guard to upstage San Diego State’s star guard, league player of the year Xavier Thames.

KEY FACTOR in this game for San Diego State: Cleaning the glass is essential for the Aztecs, as they’ll want to limit the Rebels’ second-chance opportunities. San Diego State’s aggressive defensive nature could force the Rebels to make poor shot selections, so it’s up to Josh Davis to bang with Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch to get rebounds.

NOTABLE: UNLV, which has an all-time record of 56-17 (.767) in conference tournament play, improved to 13-1 all-time in the quarterfinals of the MW Tournament. Its lone loss, ironically, came in 2009 to tonight’s opponent – San Diego State. The Runnin’ Rebels, who are 2-5 against the Aztecs all-time in MW Tournament play, have lost four straight to San Diego State in the event. And while the Aztecs are 2-0 versus UNLV in the MW semifinals, the Runnin’ Rebels are 8-4 all-time in the semifinals.

UNLV COACH DAVE RICE: On San Diego State - As soon as the Wyoming game ended, we started thinking about San Diego State. They’re a fantastic offensive rebounding team, they’re so well balanced. They’ve got a group that’s experienced. I’ve got so much respect for Xavier Thames and Josh Davis – two fifth-year seniors that provide leadership. They’ve got guys who come off the bench who understand their roles and do their jobs.

Biggest Concerns - Their offensive rebounding is a huge factor, making sure we handle their backcourt pressure. But the biggest thing is the health of Khem Birch because you know how important Khem is to our team.

Biggest Confidence - The fact we’re a resilient group that has always bounced back from adversity. Just like the adversity of last week playing without Roscoe Smith for the entire week and then having the Bryce Dejean-Jones suspension and losing two games and coming up against a team that we knew would be difficult to play against in Wyoming, but we bounced back and fought our way to a victory.

UNLV_AdamsSt_04

The Runnin’ Rebels hope they’re No. 1 after Saturday’s championship game, in the Mountain West Tournament.

No. 5 Wyoming (18-13 overall, 9-9 MW) vs. No. 4 UNLV (19-12, 10-8)

WHEN: Thursday 2:30 p.m.

TV: CBS Sports Network

RADIO: ESPN Radio 1100/98.9 FM

SEASON SERIES: UNLV won the lone meeting, 48-46, on Feb. 8 in Las Vegas, improving to 33-15 in the all-time series.

KEY PLAYERS: UNLV: F Khem Birch 11.8 ppg., 10 rpg., 3.8 bpg., F Roscoe Smith 11.0 ppg., 11.0 rpg., G Bryce Dejean Jones 13.4 ppg. WYO: G Josh Adams 12.5 ppg., G Riley Grabau 10.7 ppg. G Nathan Sobey 9.5 ppg., 3.4 rpg.

KEY FACTOR in this game for UNLV: Roscoe Smith suffered a concussion in the Rebels’ 93-67 win over Air Force on March 1, and subsequently missed the team’s next two games – both losses. Smith, who ranks fourth in the nation in rebounding (11.0 rpg), is expected to return for this game. Smith had eight points and nine rebounds in UNLV’s 48-46  win over Wyoming on Feb. 8.

KEY FACTOR in this game for Wyoming: In the Cowboys’ loss to UNLV last month, forward Larry Nance Jr. recorded a game-high 12 points in the low-scoring game. But Wyoming will be without his services for this game, as he tore his right ACL in Wyoming’s victory against Fresno State on Feb. 18. Nance was the Cowboys’ leader in scoring, rebounds, blocks and steals.

NOTABLE: UNLV, which has an all-time record of 55-17 (.764) in conference tournament play, is 22-3 all-time against the Pokes at home, including 18-2 all-time at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV has won five straight against the Cowboys, nine of its last 10 and 13 of 15. The Runnin’ Rebels are also 3-0 versus Wyoming in MW Tournament play. With Nance sidelined, the spotlight has shifted to Nathan Sobey, who registered a career-high 33 points against Colorado State on Senior Day last Saturday. Though Sobey averages just 9.5 points and 3.4 rebounds per game, he’s scored in double figures in five of the team’s last six games. After a 22-point performance against the Rams, Josh Adams has now posted three straight 20 point games. He has averaged more than 23 points over the last three contests; his 12.7 points and 2.9 assists per game lead Wyoming.

UNLV COACH DAVE RICE: On Wyoming - “We’re very concerned. They played extremely well in their last home game against Colorado State. Sobey and Josh Adams, who were both already very good players, they played at an extremely high level, they shoot the ball extremely well. Derek Cook is protecting the rim and we know how hard they’ll play and how well they execute on the offensive end.

On Roscoe Smith’s return - “Roscoe was a full-go the last two days. He will be with us, he’s a full-go. He practiced the last two days, he’ll come off the bench for us, but he’ll definitely play major minutes.”

Finishing the season, heading into the tournament - “Last week was tough, we missed Roscoe’s experience and his energy. I thought we competed in both games and we have a full roster now, and we know the challenge of playing against Wyoming. We also know the opportunity that we have this week. We look forward to playing hard and see what happens.”

Thomas and Mack Center - “It’s a neutral court. UNLV hasn’t won the tournament since 2008. It’s a new season and a great opportunity. If anything, it’s sometimes a little bit of a distraction that you’re actually at home and not on the road, from the standpoint of making the guys understand that it is a neutral court. We’re trying to make our routine as close to like we’re on the road as we can.”

By W.G. Ramirez

AWF_9236

Photo courtesy: Daniel Ward/AWard Foto

Prior to Monday night’s opening round game in the Mountain West Conference Championships, UNLV women’s basketball coach Kathy Olivier leaned down and told senior guard Mia Bell, “I remember when you were a senior in high school, you were sitting right there.”

Pointing to the front row in the stands at the Thomas and Mack Center, the Durango High School graduate knew it was one place she didn’t want to return for the quarterfinals.

One win, that’s all Bell wanted Monday night; the chance to keep playing.

On the brink of the Lady Rebels defeating San Jose State, 78-75, to complete the largest comeback of the season – a 13-point deficit – there might not have been a bigger play in the game than Bell’s key steal in the paint with 18.9 seconds left in the contest.

“When you look up at the scoreboard and you need one stop, I think you kind of feel it,” Bell said after the win. “You kind of feel the urgency of the entire play. I definitely felt that. It was like ‘we get this stop, we can live to fight another day.’ If we don’t get this stop, we go home heartbroken. I didn’t want to feel that feeling. I felt that before. Didn’t want to feel it again.”

Bell knows heartbreak, on many levels.

Three days into her freshman year at Durango, Bell’s mother, Yvette, died of complications from a stroke.

“I think about it all the time,” Bell said, during a private interview Monday night. “I wear the No. 30 for my mom. It’s a constant reminder she’s here.”

That didn’t stop her from playing basketball and starring for the Trailblazers. In 2009, she scored the second-most points (52) in NIAA history against Clark. Her senior year she was named Gatorade Nevada Player of the Year after averaging 26.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game.

AWF_9251

Photo Courtesy: Daniel Ward/AWard Foto

She arrived at UNLV, and ended up starting 17 games as a freshman, and finished fifth on the team in scoring with 6.3 points per game, and things looked promising for the up-and-coming star.

Then she endured the first of two right knee surgeries, one prior to her sophomore year, to repair meniscus, the second a microfracture procedure that resulted in her missing last season, when she received a medical redshirt.

Overcoming her latest hurdle, Bell returned to average 11.8 points and a team-leading 3.8 assists for the Lady Rebels this past season.

“She’s very, very focused,” Olivier said. “She has an extremely high basketball IQ. She’s been a leader since her freshman year.”

Bell said this season has meant more to her than any other, especially down the stretch when victories have been hard to come by. Perhaps it’s because the team has rallied together, rather than fallen apart.

“What’s different about this team is we all just fight,” Bell said. “We might not have the best players, but we all trust each other. We’re doing it for each other, no one is out there doing it for themselves. We all love playing with each other.”

There’s no telling the potential Bell might have had if she didn’t incur those surgeries, as the WNBA might have been in her future. The subject didn’t come up, and she may have designs on dribbling that way once her career ends as a Lady Rebel. Fact is, she has the moves and the handles to dribble in any direction she chooses. According to Olivier, she also has the determination.

“She has done so much for us, in so many ways and people have no idea,” Olivier said. “She wanted to make a difference, whether it was in the community or at UNLV. She’s the first one who commits to community service, she’s the first one who wants to work camps. Those are all things that engage in the public. And when we do different things involving team bonding, Mia Bell is always stepping up, showing the way. That’s kind of what she’s done her whole time here, for five years.”

Sort of like with 18.9 seconds left in an opening round game and the season on the line. And the last thing Bell wants is to be sitting in the stands watching, rather than being involved.

The Lady Rebels have another chance to move on Tuesday night at 6 p.m., when they’ll face Fresno State, a team that has given UNLV all it could handle in two meetings this season. Win or lose, Bell will undoubtedly have one thing on her mind when she hits the floor for potentially the last time as a Lady Rebel – her mother Yvette.

“These are moments we talked about sharing together,” she said. “For me now, I know she’s still here watching me, so I’m doing it to make her proud knowing she’s smiling down on me.”

By W.G. Ramirez

Perhaps it was a wake-up call.

Arbor View senior Jacob Speaks calls it a blessing.FtbSV 045

Watching some of his fellow seniors sign letters-of-intent to play college football, Speaks was – metaphorically speaking – silent.

Salah Boyce and Devon Turner committed to the University of Mary in North Dakota, while Lonnie Sharpe and Anthony Smith announced they were headed to Victor Valley College, Calif. And yet the two-way player who led the Aggies in receiving yards and ranked second on the team in rushing yards appeared to be going nowhere.

“I was stressing for a minute, but I had to think to myself ‘you can’t have everything,’” said Speaks, a 6-foot, 185-pound monster who finished last season with 126 receiving yards and 676 rushing yards. “I went through a three-week depression, as if I wasn’t going to make it. Not signing, that feeling like all the hard work I put in, then you get to this stage, and boom – nothing!”

But Speaks knows he is better than that, and is confident he can compete to play at the next level. Thus, upon being accepted to UNLV last week, he announced he will attempt to walk-on with the football Rebels in the fall.

“I got to a point where I thought to myself ‘I waited too long,’ then I thought to myself: ‘UNLV, why not?’” said Speaks, who ranked fifth on the team in scoring with 48 points. “I had to think about what was best for me overall and I knew I could stay here, afford in-state tuition and have a chance to walk-on. This happening is a true blessing.”

Speaks’ story reeks of the same one former Cimarron-Memorial standout Tim Hasson played out at UNLV.

Hasson played in every game as a Rebel, after taking advantage of the opportunity to walk on, earning his spot on the team and becoming a defensive leader by his senior season, last year.

“Tim is a great story, a great example for young players coming into college,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said last fall prior to the season-opener at Minnesota. “He showed up here as a walk-on wide receiver and three weeks later he was actually playing in a game as an outside linebacker.”

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Speaks succeed at either level, as he starred on both sides of the ball for the Aggies. He finished his senior season with a pair of 100-yard games, which is significant since coach Dan Barnson had eight running backs to choose from in just about every game. He also led team in rushing in three games, including a 96-yard effort against eventual state champion Bishop Gorman in the playoffs. On defense, Speaks ranked eighth on the team with 36 tackles and was second on the team with two interceptions.

Hauck, who is prohibited from speaking about walk-on players, opened spring practice Monday at Rebel Park, looking to carryover the momentum from last season’s run to a New Year’s Day bowl game last season. The fifth-year Rebels coach has repeatedly said he looks for locals, even though most standouts are eager to head out of town for their college experience.

“Our philosophy in recruiting is to start with local guys and then move on from there,” Hauck said last fall. “The hardest guys sometimes, it seems like to convince that UNLV and Vegas are great places, are the Vegas guys. We’ve got guys from all over the country and all over the world right now and guys have come because they think this is a great place and has some potential to be good and good for them.”

Nevertheless, Hauck is a staunch believer that hometown players – like Hasson – tend to thrive.

“I think it’s a big deal, and I think it’s more prevalent in football than other sports,” Hauck said. “We’ve got guys from all over town here, and they all feel strongly about their high school. You represent your team and your school and to a degree the state you live in. I think it’s great when guys are passionate about that representation. We’re going to keep working hard on the local guys and hopefully we can get our share.”

Don’t be surprised if Hauck’s next great local standout is someone whose talent ‘Speaks’ volumes on the field.