The Mountain West Conference has arrived.
At the start of the season I thought, like most sports writers, that BYU, San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico would fight it out for the top spot in the conference.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Utah and they were expected to be somewhere in the middle of the second tier teams in the Mountain West.
They are not.
Last night, they continued to win at the Thomas and Mack Center, where last year, they swept through the Mountain West Tournament on their way to a five seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Utah had four players in double figures in scoring and upset the Runnin' Rebels on their home court for a rare win by a visiting team.
The Rebels had an opportunity to move up in the standings after their road win in New Mexico followed by their win against San Diego State on Wednesday.
For the second time in as many games Tre'Von Willis and Chase Stanback led the Rebels scoring. Willis had a career high 27 points along with six rebounds and four assists. At one point, Willis scored 13 straight points for the Rebels to get them back in the game.
Chase Stanback had 14 points and 10 rebounds for his first double double as a Rebel. Freshman guard Anthony Marshall made two spectacular blocks but could not convert free throws down the stretch.
The Rebels lost the game at the charity stripe and beyond the three point line. They made only one three point shot out of 12 attempts and shot an abysmal 64 percent from the foul line going 22-for-34.
In the meantime, the Utes shot 50 percent of their threes, scoring 24 points and going 23-for-29 at the line.
The Rebels were not sharp in this game as Utah controlled the pace and forced the Rebels into 10 turnovers. The 16,594 crowd left very disappointed as UNLV who were 11 1/2 point favorites came up short.
UNLV plays three out of their next four games on the road against teams they should be able to handle before the big showdown on February 6th against BYU.
If the Rebels expect to be a NCAA Tournament team, they are going to have to be more consistent in their scoring. Their defense is excellent, as usual, for a Lon Kruger coached team but they have to improve their foul shooting and their three point attempts if they want to play with the big boys. There is still a long way to go and the potential is there.
This is a very young team that is working hard to come together. Tre'Von Willis is the leader and a future NBA draft pick but he can't do it alone. The other players need to step up and not stand around watching Willis. This reminds me a lot of the Marcus Banks years and Wink Adams' tenure at UNLV. Both players could single handidly dominate a game, but when they were off their game, the Rebels needed to find other players to pick up the slack.
I believe Lon Kruger will find the right combination of players to achieve their goal for tournament play. These next four games will measure just how far they have to go to get there.