At one point during the season, Nevada Las Vegas seemed a cinch for the NCAA basketball tournament, having won 16 of its first 18 games.
But that was before the Runnin' Rebels lost their step--and five of their last 10 games.
The Rebels will be playing without star forward J.R. Rider, who was suspended by UNLV Tuesday after the school said a tutor wrote part of an assignment in his name.
The winner tonight will play the winner of Friday's Pepperdine-UC Santa Barbara game in the second round.
In failing to get an NCAA bid for the first time when eligible since 1981-82, UNLV (21-7) will try to bounce back under first-year Coach Rollie Massimino after failing to win either the Big West regular-season or conference tournament title.
"When you're a competitor, you better try to win," Massimino said. "I don't care if it's marbles or whatever. You have to play to win."
But being motivated for an NIT game might be difficult for a school that won the national title three years ago and was back in the Final Four a year later.
"I know if I was coaching Vegas, I'd have a lot of trouble getting my kids up," USC Coach George Raveling said. "The standards at UNLV for basketball are like the standards for our football team. The expectations are so high, the pressure is so great, that not getting chosen for the big dance has to be considered a letdown."
For the Trojans, that will not be a problem.
While UNLV was streaking early this season, USC opened with a 11-7 record before making a late run. The Trojans rallied to win five of seven games and had hopes of gaining an NCAA bid before road games at Arizona and Arizona State last weekend, when USC was swept.
"Our kids are excited about playing Vegas," Raveling said. "And to be playing in Vegas on national television is a dream."
The game, which will be televised live on ESPN, will be USC's first NIT appearance since 1973 and second overall. The Trojans lost to Notre Dame, 69-65, on St. Patrick's Day in New York in their only other NIT appearance.
Rider's absence may make things somewhat easier for the Trojans, but for USC (16-11) to upset the Rebels, it will need a good showing from its three-point shooters, Phil Glenn, Rodney Chatman and Dwayne Hackett.
The Trojans averaged 8.8 three-point baskets, with Glenn, Chatman and Hackett accounting for 209 of their 236 attempts. Glenn, who leads the team in scoring with a 13.3 average, broke the school record for most three-pointers made in a season with 87.
Another key for the Trojans will be the play of point guard Burt Harris, an All-Pacific 10 Conference freshman team selection. Harris finished fifth in the conference in assists, averaging five.
Like the Trojans, UNLV uses a three-guard attack with Dexter Boney, Reggie Manual and point guard Dedan Thomas.
The heart of the attack, though, was the 6-foot-5 Rider, who averaged 29.1 points and 8.8 rebounds and was voted Big West player of the year.
Without him, the bulk of UNLV's inside work probably will fall to 6-7 Evric Gray, who averaged 16.3 points and 7.3 rebounds. USC will counter with the inside combination of Lorenzo Orr, Mark Boyd and Tremayne Anchrum.
Orr, who has come on strong the second half of the season, averaged 12 points and six rebounds for the Trojans in Pac-10 play. Boyd and Anchrum combined to average 15 points and 14 rebounds.