Sin City standoff

By By Cody Brunner

By Cody Brunner

There’s still a chance. Although the U men’s basketball team is not in the most enviable position in the upcoming Mountain West Conference tournament, it still has a chance to keep its season alive. All the Utes have to do is win three consecutive games.

“It’s only three games and somebody has to win them,” Utah head coach Ray Giacoletti said. “I just told the guys, ‘Why not us?'”

That may prove to be a little more difficult than it seems, considering the Utes dropped to the No. 7 seed after losing to BYU last weekend. The position forces them to play No. 2 UNLV on their home court tomorrow night, where the Rebels have not been beaten since Nov. 17.

Utah has come closer to breaking that streak than any other UNLV opponent, taking the Rebels to double-overtime in the Thomas and Mack Center earlier this season. But missed free-throws in regulation would come back to haunt the Utes as they watched Rebel guard Wendell White score the game-winning layup with 15 seconds left to seal the victory.

The loss was the Utes’ first in conference and showed the same problematic defensive woes that have been Utah’s M.O. this entire season.

Utah is allowing opponents to shoot 49.9 percent from the field, which ranks at the bottom of the MWC. The Utes are also allowing opponents to shoot a blistering 46.6 percent from behind the three-point line, which is well above the other teams’ percentages in the conference.

“For whatever reason, we haven’t been able to find any consistency on defense,” Giacoletti said. “That’s something that you take very personally as a coach. You should be able to control that.”

Giacoletti announced his resignation last Friday but will finish the remainder of the season as coach. Whether that will be a distraction or an inspiration for the Utes in the conference tournament remains to be seen, but it sure didn’t help the Utes in their latest faux pas against rival BYU. Utah battled back and forth with the Cougars for the first 10 minutes, but after that it was all blue.

BYU ended the first half on a 20-6 run — thanks to some help off the bench — then ran away with the game in the second with strong inside play. During one stretch, the Cougars outscored the Utes 18-2, which ended any chance of an upset.

“We kept trying to fight back, but they just made great play after great play and kept pushing the lead on us,” said Utah forward Shaun Green. “It was hard to endure.”

As difficult as it was, the Utes will need an increased defensive effort if they want to beat the Rebels at home — where UNLV has won 14 consecutive games.

UNLV is picking up steam heading into the conference tournament, having won 11 of its past 13 games, including its last four. The Rebels boast one of the more potent guard trios in the entire conference, the members of which received conference accolades earlier this week.

Topping the list is senior Wendell White, who was one of five players to be named to the Mountain West Conference first-team. The shooting guard currently leads the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 14.7 and 6.3 per game, respectively. The Utes were able to contain White in the latest contest between the two teams, holding him to merely two points on 1-for-12 shooting. But that outing was a rare one for the 6-foot-6 guard, who normally uses his size to pound much smaller opponents.

“Wendell (White) is a physical basketball player and really provides a tough match-up,” Green said. “He can step out and hit the mid-range jumper and can also post you up.”

Green was the reason that White struggled from the floor so much in the last game between the teams. He did not allow the big man to get near the basket.

“Yeah, I was able to force him outside in that last game,” Green said. “Luckily, he had an off shooting night.”

Fellow backcourt mate Wink Adams provides the lightning in the Rebel attack, slashing his way to 14.1 points and 4.0 rebounds per game. The sophomore shooting guard earned MWC second-team honors earlier in the week.

“Wink is quick — really quick,” said U center Luke Nevill. “We have got to stop him from getting easy points in transition and not allow him to penetrate.”

Rounding out the UNLV trio is point guard Kevin Kruger, who has made quite a name for himself this season with an unselfish style of play. He currently leads the conference with 5.04 assists per game and, like his teammates, received MWC honors (third-team) this week.

“He’s a really smart point guard,” said U guard Johnnie Bryant. “He knows how talented the guys around him are and he uses that, but he can also shoot it.”

If the Runnin’ Utes are able to stymie the potent guard trio and upset the Rebels on their home court, they will face-off against the winner of the San Diego State/Colorado State game, both of which the Utes have beaten this year.

On the other side of the bracket, heavily favored BYU will square off against the winner of a play-in between TCU and New Mexico. The victor of that game gets to play the winner of the Air Force and Wyoming match-up in the MWC semifinal.

With four MWC teams “on the bubble” of the NCAA tournament, the conference finale should pique some national interest and implications.

BYU has jumped up to near the top of everyone’s at-large bid list for the tournament after winning its first conference title since 1988. The Cougars proved to be particularly tough down the stretch, winning 10 of their last 11 games.

Likewise, UNLV has strengthened its case toward the end of the conference schedule and has been listed as high as a No. 4 seed in some ESPN-projected tournaments.

Air Force and San Diego State have both looked strong during some point of the season, but both will need a strong showing in the MWC tournament if they want to woo voters.

While the Utes have absolutely no chance of getting an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament, they could still earn the MWC’s automatic bid by winning the conference tournament. All they have to do is win three straight games.

“We know that every game could very well be our last,” Bryant said. “If that doesn’t motivate you to try your hardest, you shouldn’t be out there. It’s going to be tough, but we’re going to give everything we’ve got.”

Lennie Mahler

Luke Nevill battles a BYU big man in the Utes’ March 3 loss to the Cougars. Utah hopes to do better in this week’s MWC tournament.