In head coach Marvin Menzies’s third season at the helm, UNLV’s basketball team heads into the Mountain West Conference tournament with its highest seed since 2014. While the 2014 incarnation of Runnin’ Rebels basketball finished its season with a semifinal loss to San Diego State, the 2019 opens quarterfinal play against the Aztecs Thursday at 2:30 p.m.

The Rebels (17-13 overall, 11-7 MWC) look to win a quarterfinal tournament game for the first time in five seasons. UNLV hasn’t played on a Friday in the tourney since its 59-51 loss to SDSU in 2014. All other Rebel wins came in the play-in rounds and UNLV hasn’t reached the title game since 2013, when it lost to New Mexico, 63-56.

To reach its first semifinal in half a decade, the Rebels will have to go through SDSU (19-12 overall, 11-7 MWC), which tied for fourth with UNLV in the conference. The Aztecs earned the fourth seed after sweeping the Rebels in the regular season, 94-77 in San Diego and sneaking out of the Thomas & Mack Center here in Vegas with a 60-59 win just weeks later.

Can the Rebels break finally break through against SDSD, teams with a .500 record or better?

Much has been made about the Rebels sweeping five conference opponents, but it also exposes the fact that UNLV hasn’t beaten a team with a .500 or better record since defeating Hawaii and BYU back in December. Since then, the Rebels are 11-1 against teams with a winning percentage below .500 but 0-for-6 against teams with winning records.

A win over SDSU would be the first quality conference win in the 2018-19 campaign. While it’s hard to beat a team three times in one season, the Aztecs have absolutely owned the Rebels over the past few seasons, sweeping UNLV in this year for the fifth time in six years. Making matters worse, the Rebels have lost seven straight conference tournament games to San Diego State dating back to 2003.

The previous two matchups between UNLV and SDSU have been a tale of two Rebels. When UNLV lost on the road to the Aztecs back on Jan. 26, UNLV was riding a modest stretch with four wins in their previous five. Then, SDSU happened. The Aztecs blew the Rebels out of the gym, dominating them, 94-77. The loss started a short three-game losing streak for UNLV, which lost to UNR and Utah State in succession.

Aztecs star Jaden McDaniels scored a career-high 30 points and 13 rebounds while SDSU outrebounded the Rebels 38-29, including a plus-10 advantage on the defensive glass. San Diego State also shot 56 percent from the field and nearly 55 percent from beyond the three-point line. The Rebels simply did not have an answer for McDaniels.

In Round 2, UNLV looked like a team making progress, storming back from a 16-point deficit with 9:34 to go in the game to take a brief lead with 2:24 remaining. After a savvy fake timeout led to three made free throws on a foul beyond the arc, UNLV nearly won the game but junior Nic Blair’s wide open three rimmed out and the Aztecs celebrated another win over the Rebels.

“We had a couple guys on one page, a couple guys on another page, but I thought that they learned from that,” Menzies told the Las Vegas Sun. “In the locker room we talked about it and kind of sorted it out just now in terms of what we need to do next time we’re in that scenario.”

A tourney win by the Rebels would set up what should be a third shot at in-state rival, UNR. The Rebels have lost to UNR, 87-70 at Reno and 83-79 in Las Vegas. The Rebels would be heavy underdogs (probably +15 or greater) but stranger things have happened in the tournament, including last year, when the Rebels fell to UNR by five, 79-74.

There’s a reason they call it March Madness, kids. Anything can happen.

Key players for the Runnin’ Rebels

To make a deep run, the Rebels will need to get more quality play from their upperclassmen. When seniors Kris Clyburn and Noah Robotham play well, as does junior Nic Blair, they can compete with anyone in the league. Unfortunately, all three struggled against the better teams this year.

Clyburn (13.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.9 turnover/game) nursed a horrific shooting stretch while Robotham (9.5 ppg, 5.1 apg, 2 turnovers/game) made a few head-scratching passes in crunch time. Blair’s (6.6 ppg) missed three stands out as a linchpin moment that never came to fruition.

Sophomore point guard Amauri Hardy (13.2 ppg, 3.3 apg, 2.1 turnover/game) could lead the way, if he can find some space to operate off the dribble. Early season standout Joel Ntambwe (11.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg) could heat up again but the gifted true freshman has been relegated to the bench multiple times the final few weeks for what appeared to be disciplinary reasons.

Big man Cheikh Mbacke Diong (7 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.5 bpg) has been much better down the stretch for UNLV, giving the undersized Rebels some post presence and a bit of defense in the middle. Despite his emergence, the Rebels miss senior big man, Shakur Juiston, who is out for the season but will return in 2019-20. Diong’s penchant for foul trouble could spell disaster for the Rebels, especially against UNR (if UNLV can sneak past SDSU), which physically dominated UNLV at the Thomas & Mack back in a game where there were 47 personal fouls called against both teams.

How does the rest of the field look?

With Utah State and UNR sharing the regular season conference title, it seems an almost forgone conclusion the two will meet again after one of the most controversial post-game incidents in conference history.

After losing at Logan, Utah, UNR standout Jordan Caroline completely lost his sh*t, smashing a fire extinguisher glass before having to be restrained by multiple teammates and coaches when he appeared to be attempting to find someone related to Utah State’s program. Despite dropping the N-word multiple times and causing property damage (not to mention embarrassing the entire conference on the national news circuit), Caroline was not suspended and did not miss a single minute for his behavior.

The two teams split the season series so the neutral court should make for must-see TV, if both teams can make their run through the rest of the field. Both Fresno State and SDSU pose the biggest threat as both have wins over one of the two top dogs, with SDSU beating UNR, while Fresno State stung the Aggies, 78-77.

Caroline (17.7 ppg, 9.6 rpg) teamed with the Martin twins to lead UNR to prominence. Caleb Martin led the Wolf Pack in scoring with 19.6 ppg while his brother Cody added another 11.6 per game.

Utah State, on the other hand, will ride Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, Sam Merrill (21 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 4.2 apg) and big man Neemias Queta, who averaged 11.6 points per game along with 8.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game, respectively. Conference Coach of the Year, Craig Smith, also has done a remarkable job pulling the Aggies out of the basement and into the spotlight this year.

While it is entirely possible a dark horse could emerge to vie for the league tourney title, the recent stretch of basketball from both Reno and Utah State indicates they will get one last shot to square off for the tournament championship. Hopefully, this time, Thomas & Mack security will protect the innocent fire extinguishers around the arena from any abuse from Caroline.

Sin City SM Odds to Win the Conference Tournament

Utah State: Even

UNR: Even

Fresno State: +400

San Diego State: +500

UNLV: +800

Air Force: +1000

New Mexico: +1200

Colorado State +1300

Boise State: +1500

Wyoming: +2000

San Jose State: +10000