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Home court remains advantage

Gonzaga basketball coach Mark Few was asked Sunday night about what it meant for the West Coast Conference to move its postseason tournament off a participating school’s home floor to the neutral setting of the Orleans Arena.

“The best thing this league has ever done,” Few said. “It’s fair. The other way we did it — making student-athletes have to (potentially) play a road game at the end of the year in a tournament … that’s small-time, basically.”

Many rightly assign the label to a Mountain West event that three years ago returned to the Thomas & Mack Center, and it’s a secondary badge the league should wear until it again discovers a way to contest March games with NCAA Tournament significance on equal hardwood for all nine members.

If you can go to Washington to fight Bowl Championship Series inequalities, I’m guessing you can unearth some reasonable plan to restore this tournament to a setting (say, oh, the MGM Grand Garden) that is neutral to everyone while also making up any potential lost revenue by charging more for tickets and appeasing archaic NCAA concerns on casino sports books.

But know this: If you think UNLV was happy to stage the tournament on its court the past few years, well, the Rebels are top-of-the-Stratosphere ecstatic this time.

It might be the one difference between a third straight NCAA trip and wondering how many might bother showing for that massive National Invitation Tournament tilt next week.

“Without a doubt, we’re thankful the (conference tournament) is at our place,” Rebels senior Rene Rougeau said. “We’re very thankful. We’ve been handed an opportunity, and we have to take advantage.”

Bracketology forecasts aside, the Rebels today aren’t deserving of an NCAA Tournament berth. You can’t finish fifth in the Mountain West (two games out of fourth) and go 5-5 in your last 10 games and expect to be considered NCAA worthy by anyone owning a shred of common sense or impartiality.

Translation: Thirty games later, UNLV’s work has just begun.

“We talk about having to win every game we play,” Rebels coach Lon Kruger said. “That’s all we talk about. I think every team needs to be that way heading into a tournament. I think Utah and BYU are in (the NCAAs), but I also think they’ll come in here acting like they have to win every game. We are not in yet, but our approach will be no different.”

Something has to be different, beginning at 2:30 p.m. today.

The Rebels open against San Diego State, a team they match up against about as well as a size small cap on Barry Bonds’ head. The Aztecs swept the season series from UNLV, which averaged just 56 points in the two games while offering at times something better termed offensive than offense.

San Diego State is quicker. Longer. More physical. More active.

And yet it will be a surprise if UNLV loses today.

Not because of some theory that it is difficult for a team to beat another three times in a season — one stat broadcast nationally this week was that the 2-0 teams are 21-3 in such situations this year.

When you’re better, you’re better, and San Diego State was that against UNLV both times this season.

But it is impossible to ignore the fantastic level of play the last two conference tournaments have produced from the Rebels. It is impracticable to disregard the fact UNLV has won 31 of its last 32 games against conference opponents here.

It is crazy not to believe when a team reaches at least the league tournament final each time the Mountain West event has been staged at the Thomas & Mack except for one season (2001, when the Rebels were ineligible), the advantage is clear.

Skill aided UNLV in March the last two years, and while this group lacks many of the intangibles of those NCAA teams, we (along with the likes of Louisville and Arizona and Brigham Young twice) have seen the elevated level it can produce when playing with confidence. This court at this time of year has a way of bringing that out the best in UNLV under Kruger.

The Rebels again can win the conference tournament. They are good enough, despite the recent lows. They also could be searching for NIT projections by late this afternoon.

“If we don’t take advantage of (being at home), it’s not going to matter,” Kruger said. “All things considered, we’ll take the trade-off. We’d rather be on the other side and have beaten (San Diego State) twice. You have that little (mental) edge when you’re the team that got the result versus the team that didn’t.”

UNLV has perhaps a larger edge on eight others. It’s called playing at home. And if a fifth-place team wins a third straight conference tournament on its court, well, you can only imagine how those making decisions in the Mountain West might react.

Which is to say don’t be surprised if the Thomas & Mack Center hosts this thing the next 20 years.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at 702-383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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