There is a lot riding on UNLV's game against Air Force in the play-in round of the Mountain West Conference tournament on Wednesday (11 a.m., Stadium Network). After seeing their once-promising campaign scuttled by a five-game losing streak to end the regular season, the MWC tourney is now a salvage expedition for the Runnin' Rebels.
A win over Air Force (12-18, 6-12 MWC), a team UNLV has already beaten twice this season, would keep the Rebels (19-12, 8-10) alive for one more day, at least, and allow them to audition for the role of 'Cinderella' against top-seeded UNR on Thursday. A loss would make it an even half dozen to end the season and send the program into the offseason surrounded by questions about the future of its rebuilding process.
Despite the high stakes, the Rebels appeared loose and assured when meeting with the media after Tuesday's final tune-up practice.
Senior guard Jovan Mooring was all smiles, despite his recent shooting slump, and said he was convinced the Rebels have the right mindset heading into the biggest game of the season.
"I feel confident that we're going to win, of course," Mooring said. "We have a great game plan going into the tournament, so we'll just go out there and play. It's all cards on the table now."
Center Brandon McCoy, who was named Mountain West Freshman of the Year earlier in the day, said the team isn't being weighed down by the losing streak.
"Right now the mindset is that's over with," McCoy said. "It's a whole new season. Right now we're 0-0, and we want to come out tomorrow and give it our all, and that's all we've been worrying about. We haven't even been thinking about the last [five] games."
That relaxed, refreshed attitude should be a positive for UNLV. As the team defense unraveled during the course of the five-game losing streak, each made basket by opponents seemed to damage the Rebels' psyche. But coach Marvin Menzies praised the players' defensive effort over the last couple practices and vouched for their readiness for tournament play.
"I think the guys have the mentality of understanding it's one-and-done time," Menzies said. "We're raring to go. We've kind of shut them down and kept them together here the last couple of days to give them a tournament feel. Logistically I think we've done all the right things."
Menzies has been beating the Cinderalla drum for at least a week, and that message has gotten through to his players. A day before taking the court against Air Force with the season on the line, Mooring was dreaming big and laying out the case for the Rebels to make a run in the Mountain West tournament.
"It's just about being better for one game," Mooring said. "That's why you see so many upsets in the tournament. You don't have to be the better team, you just have to be the better team for one game, just for 40 minutes, and if you can be the better team for 40 minutes, you can come out with a great outcome."
Of course, UNLV doesn't have to use its imagination to envision being the better team. The Rebels have played very good basketball at various points of the season, and they've looked good against some of the league's best teams. The roster is talented enough to make noise in a tournament setting, and if the players are feeling any anxiety, it's because they sense there's still an opportunity to save the season.
Mooring, a senior captain who is now faced with the prospect of every game being his last in a UNLV uniform, thinks the Rebels will be ready.
"It's nerve-wracking, but it's great," Mooring said of the one-and-done setting. "If you lose, your season's over. So, of course, you're going to be a little nervous, but once the ball is tipped, I think everyone will be loosened up."