Notebook: Is UNLV a contender or pretender?

UNLV's Kevin Penner

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It seems like every year, at some point in the season, I become puzzled by the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV.

So why should this time around be any different? Well, it isn’t, especially after what transpired this past weekend at the Arizona State Thunderbird Invitational.

Yes, once again coach Dwaine Knight’s Rebels have me scratching my head and wondering whether these guys are pretenders or contenders.

Last fall, UNLV opened its season nicely with a T-2 at the Air Force Falcon and an impressive T-3 at the Ping/Golfweek Preview. Then the Rebels slid to a 10th-place finish at the Nicklaus Invitational.

Still, they were able to close the fall on decent notes: fourth at the Jerry Pate and second at the Herb Wimberly.

Then came the spring season. The Rebels got going with a so-so sixth place at the John Burns in Hawaii, but followed with disappointing ninth-place showings at their own Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters and the Don Puckette National Invitation in Arizona.

At this point, I definitely put them in the pretenders category.

But wait! Last weekend UNLV bested the 18-team field in the Thunderbird at Karsten Golf Club in Tempe, Ariz., for its first win of the season and first since it captured the Southern Highlands in March 2012.

What made the win most impressive is that the Rebels, with a final-round-best 7-under 277, held off a charge from No. 1-ranked California to beat the Bears by one shot and finished seven strokes better than No. 4-ranked New Mexico.

“This was a great win for us,” Knight said. “I’m very proud of the guys. This was an important win for the program, just a huge team win. Our attitude and focus was there this week. It was a total team victory.”

The Rebels were led by senior Kevin Penner and sophomore Kurt Kitayama. They tied for fifth with 6-under 207 totals, with Penner shooting 4 under the last round and Kitayama posting 2 under.

Sophomore Carl Jonson tied for 20th at 1-over 214, while junior Nicholas Mauri tied for 41st at 5-over 218 and freshman AJ McInerney tied for 58th at 9-over 222.

The victory moved the Rebels to No. 30 in the latest Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings.

Now, with the NCAA post-season getting closer, the big question is whether the Rebels can keep it going at this high level.

We’ll find out soon enough as UNLV is back in action again this weekend in the Texas-hosted Morris Williams, where another strong field awaits.

• • •

Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’: That would be the Crimson Tide of Alabama and standout junior left-hander Cory Whitsett. They made it two in a row last weekend at the Texas A&M Aggie Invitational in College Station, Texas.

Late last month, Alabama and Whitsett captured team and individual titles at the Linger Longer Collegiate at Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, Ga.

The Tide, runner-up to Texas at last season’s NCAA Championship, were most impressive at the Aggie. They were the only team to finish under par and, at 18 under, rolled to an 18-shot victory over Kent State.

No. 2 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings, Alabama notched its fifth victory of the season and fourth in five starts this spring. The Tide are now 30 under over 26 rounds on the season and an amazing 78 under in their 14 rounds this spring.

Whitsett claimed his fifth college career win, finishing at 8-under 208. This ties him for second most in school history, with Steve Lowery, and leaves him one behind record holder Justin Thomas, his sophomore teammate.

How dominant was Alabama at the Aggie? Following Whitsett were two of his teammates. Bobby Wyatt placed second at 7-under 209 while Scott Strohmeyer was third at 208. That means this trio alone combined for a 21-under total.

“Everyone on our team is playing great golf right now,” said Alabama coach Jay Seawell. “It starts each week with their preparation and attitude. When you’re having success, it can be hard to motivate yourself; you really have to have good leadership. Our team has done a good job of not being satisfied and playing their best every day.

“Any time you have guys finish 1-2-3, the team is going to do well,” Seawell said. “It ended up being those three guys competing against each other to win the tournament.”

Rounding out the Alabama effort in Texas was Thomas, who tied for 18th at 3-over 219, and junior Trey Mullinax, who tied for 53rd at 12-over 228.

Next up for the Crimson Tide is the Southeastern Conference Championship, April 19-21 at Seaside Golf Club in St. Simons Island, Ga., where they are defending champions and seeking the school’s fourth conference title.

• • •

.500 rule. . . ho-hum: When the NCAA instituted the .500 rule a few years ago, it created quite a stir. Simply put, it meant in order for a team to be considered for the NCAA post-season, it had to have a .500 or better won-loss record against Division I teams.

It’s obvious coaches have adjusted their schedules to meet this requirement.

Of the top 70 teams in the current Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings, only three are below .500, and three others might be considered on the bubble.

No. 47 Augusta State is 62-66, while No. 59 Iowa is 33-44; and No. 70 Pacific is 49-64. The bubble teams are No. 52 San Diego State (71-57), No. 69 Virginia (55-54), and No. 61 Alabama-Birmingham (60-59).

Alabama-Birmingham gave its status a huge boost early this week as the Blazers tied for first with Mississippi State at the Old Waverly event and added 12 wins to its total. They entered the event at 48-59.

On the opposite end, Pacific all but dashed its chances – unless it wins its conference championship – when it tied for 13th Tuesday in the 14-team field at the Gary Koch Invitational to absorb 12 losses.

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