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Previewing Albuquerque: Evening games

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Here's a look at the evening action at New Mexico's famed Pit:

No. 6 UNLV (26-8) vs. No. 11 Colorado (23-11), 9:57 p.m. ET

The beauty of any playoff structure is that momentum can carry a team to a title.

The best teams don't always match up in a championship. Who's hot, at the right time, can ultimately be the difference.

Connecticut wasn't the best team a year ago. The Huskies had one of the top players and certainly were one of the hottest teams after winning the Big East tournament with a run of five wins in five days.

Momentum is on the side of Vanderbilt and Florida State, two teams that weren't supposed to win their respective conferences in the SEC and ACC.

But no power six conference had more of a stunner in the conference tournament than the Pac-12. Colorado had been a nice home team this season, but the Buffaloes couldn't match that productivity on the road. So there was no reason to believe it would occur on a neutral floor in Los Angeles. But it did.

And as a result Colorado won the automatic bid out of the Pac-12 and, after Cal's First Four loss Wednesday night, is now the only remaining representative of the once-mighty conference.

"It's about being the hottest team and who is playing the best right now," second-year coach Tad Boyle said. "We're playing as good as anybody because of our toughness and grit and determination."

The Buffs are riding the momentum of knocking off Utah, Oregon, Cal and Arizona on successive days and now have an 11 vs. 6 matchup Thursday against UNLV at the Pit.

"We've talked about the confidence factor that Colorado played with with four very good games in four days," UNLV coach Dave Rice said. "They're coming in on a roll. So we understand the confidence they're playing with."

UNLV got beat on its home floor by league champ New Mexico in the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference tournament last week at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Colorado has momentum. UNLV does not. The Rebs went just 5-4 down the stretch. The familiarity of playing in the Pit may favor UNLV because the players have been on the floor here, but the distance from Boulder, Colo., as opposed to from Las Vegas shouldn't give one team an advantage over the other.

Boyle said the Buffaloes aren't cocky. They're confident. A year ago, the Big 12's Buffs were miffed that they were snubbed by the selection committee. That team lost Alec Burks and Cory Higgins. This team has a collection of players that defends with more attention to detail and there is more balance, led by Andre Roberson, Austin Dufault, Spencer Dinwiddie and former Utah wing Carlon Brown.

"This year's team is much more committed to defense," Boyle said. "There's no pressure. But we're not just happy to be here."

Rice said that the Buffaloes' ability to get into the lane, to get to the free throw line and to rebound the ball well are all basic keys. UNLV has had its moments where it has looked the part of a second-weekend team when Mike Moser is rebounding at a high clip and Anthony Marshall is making shots. Vegas beat North Carolina early in the season when the Tar Heels were No. 1 in the country. The potential is there for the Runnin' Rebels to go on a run in this bracket. But UNLV doesn't have the momentum.

"I feel like we may have lost our legs down the stretch a little bit," Moser said. "Just got a little distracted from the major goal as far as seeding and winning a tournament. But I feel like it's kind of a new season and we've just got to refocus and go out and play."

Three players to watch

Carlon Brown, 6-5, Sr., Colorado: Brown was the Pac-12 tournament's most outstanding player. He averaged 15.8 points and made half of his shots in the tournament. Brown, like Moser, is a four-year transfer player after starting his career at Utah.

Mike Moser, 6-8, So., UNLV: Moser has had more impact than any other four-year transfer on the West Coast this season after transferring from UCLA. He has been a double-double machine for the Runnin' Rebels. If UNLV is to advance, it'll need a huge game from Moser.

Chace Stanback, 6-8, Sr., UNLV: The Rebels have more talent on the court than the Buffs. That may not translate into a win, but the combination of Moser rebounding and Stanback getting his business done on the wing with more than a dozen points a game makes them even more formidable.

No. 3 Baylor (27-7) vs. No. 14 South Dakota State (27-7), 7:27 p.m. ET

There were games this season when Baylor looked like it could win the national title. And then there were times when the Bears had the look of an over-hyped team that was long on athleticism and short on patience and production.

But the Bears recaptured their early-season success by knocking off Kansas in the Big 12 semifinals before losing to Missouri.

"We've got a lot of that momentum from the tournament for the fact that we all trust each other," said Baylor's Perry Jones III. "We've all got confidence in each other and we're all looking for each other for support. We're being aggressive and playing together."

The Bears have the length to seriously fluster the Jackrabbits. If Jones III, Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller use their size and reach to their advantage, then the game should be over. But South Dakota State can shoot as well as any team in this bracket, and if the game is more up-tempo then it could negate the Bears' ability to control the post.

"Everyone has talked about their length, but quite honestly, it's the smallest guy who concerns me the most," said South Dakota State coach Scott Nagy of Baylor lead guard Pierre Jackson, who has arguably been the difference for this team. "I know having coached junior college players that it takes a little while for them to adjust. They're almost like freshmen and then by the end of the senior year, they're tremendous."

Nagy said the Jackrabbits will have to contain Jackson if they want a shot to win. He knows the length of Baylor's bigs is a concern -- as well as the potential for Jackson to dictate everything.

"My biggest concern is how are we going to stop them? When we do stop them, how are we going to rebound the basketball?" Nagy said. "And with these guys, it's going to be the best team we've ever played at South Dakota State. Let's just put it that way. We know it. In order to stay in the game, we'll have to play the game of our lives."

Baylor coach Scott Drew said that South Dakota State reminds him of Missouri with its ability to shoot the 3-pointer. Nate Wolters has some Bryce Drew in his game, too, according to Drew.

Baylor should win. The Bears have the athleticism, the quickness, the length, the talent. But the Jackrabbits do have the ability to negate that with the 3.

"It's had to be for us since we're not a huge team," Nagy said of the 3-pointer being a difference for the Jackrabbits. "When we do shoot the ball well it really opens up the floor for Nate."

Wolters will have to have a dominating performance to pull off this upset.

Three players to watch

Perry Jones III, 6-11, So., Baylor: Jones is more than capable of a 30-plus-point, 15-rebound performance. When he's focused and into the game, he can be as dominant a player as there is in the country.

Pierre Jackson, 5-10, Jr., Baylor: Jackson was the missing piece to ensuring the Bears were an NCAA team this season. He has been the most consistent player on the team, ensuring this group never lost its way for more than a few games. He is the ultimate playmaker for a fast-paced, long team like Baylor that can run the break and finish on dump-down passes in the lane.

Nate Wolters, 6-3, Jr., South Dakota State: Wolters averages 21.3 points and 5.2 rebounds a game. He has the ball in his hands quite a bit and that's a good thing for SDSU. He makes plays and isn't afraid to take any shot.