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Graney: Even in defeat, playing UCLA has no downside for UNLV

Kevin Pauga is an associate athletics director at Michigan State. He’s also considered the nation’s premier expert on college basketball scheduling. Like, he knows this stuff better than anyone.

Multi-team events. Neutral sites. Home-and homes. Buy games.

Pauga tweeted this Saturday: Scheduling high-level non-conference college basketball games really has no downside.

It’s fact. It just might be tough for UNLV to swallow today.

It’s sure to drive head coach Kevin Kruger a bit batty.

“They’re not fun (to lose),” he said.

UCLA is ranked second nationally but not near the country’s second best team right now. It was still plenty good enough to whip the Rebels.

The final score was 73-51 before 6,392 at Thomas & Mack Center and — given how awful UNLV was offensively over the opening 20 minutes — the proverbial writing was on the wall at halftime.

Down big early

That’s also when former Rebels great Freddie Banks had his number retired. Brother, the Rebels sure could have used his jumper Saturday. UNLV wasn’t Fearless in any aspect.

“As good as UCLA is — and they’re an elite team — we have to be more stubborn,” Kruger said. “Getting into the lane and driving and kicking and moving. But (UCLA) also makes it really hard because they are active and take on the challenge of stopping the ball.”

It was the worst recipe for success, UNLV catching the Bruins off a blowout loss to Gonzaga and then falling behind 14-2 to start. Things didn’t get much better.

Consider: UNLV shot 5-of-22 in the first half by those not named Bryce Hamilton. Only three players attempted a layup and most of the four made came in transition.

Jumper after jumper. Miss after miss. The Rebels chased the game by playing directly into UCLA’s defensive hands.

Final (brutal) numbers: UNLV made 17-of-56 from the field for 30.4 percent and was 6-of-27 on 3s.

Rebounds: UCLA 47, UNLV 27.

“They played their style of defense and came out and executed offensively,” said UNLV forward Donovan Williams. “For us, we needed to take better shots.”

Added Hamilton: “I still feel like we’re a good shooting team.”

Here’s the bright side: This game should help UNLV. The Rebels have miles to go to be considered a good team. But playing two Top 5 programs (Michigan and UCLA) the first 2½ weeks of a season with 10 new faces can only deliver positive results if approached the correct way. That’s the key.

Bad losses kill you within the scheme of power rankings. UNLV is 4-3 and hasn’t had one.

But if you have seen early Mountain West results, you know that with the exception of a few stops — I’m guessing Air Force and San Jose State — your “A” game will be needed to win on the road this season.

No moral victories

These sorts of games — decisive loss or not — should better prepare UNLV for what’s ahead. Kruger threw his team a few big-time opponents early. He did because such are moments most who arrived this season came to experience.

Moral victories are just another way of saying you lost. I despise the mere concept, even though you can find good within them. Kruger also seems to prefer the former.

“It’s getting to the point where I’m kind of tired of playing the ‘new team’ part,” Kruger said. “This a group where we’re going to start learning that that’s done. No exceptions. These guys can do it. They can absolutely do it and we will continue to get better.

“I don’t think we need to feel like the sky is falling.”

Good. Not many shots were either Saturday.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.