Are the fast-charging UNLV Runnin' Rebels likely NCAA contenders?
LAS VEGAS -- When the relentless running finally stopped and New Mexico's Lobos had started their limp home after eating 26 fast break points without a response, UNLV standouts Mike Moser and Anthony Marshall presided confidently over the postmortem. They knew, as did anyone who watched UNLV's 80-63 throttling of one of the Mountain West's other contenders, that New Mexico simply could not hold up for 40 minutes against these Rebels. Not at this pace, not in this place.
"Yeah, definitely," Marshall said when asked if he thought New Mexico was wilting under the pressure of UNLV's transition game. "You could sense it at some point midway through the second half."
Moser was blunter: "I don't think they were ready to run like that. We had numbers just about every time."
From the moment former Rebel Dave Rice -- the "other" junior college transfer (along with Larry Johnson) on UNLV's legendary 1989-90 and 1990-91 teams -- was named head coach after Lon Kruger departed for Oklahoma, you sensed this was coming. No teams ran like those Rebels, and Rice has learned as a player and assistant under both Jerry Tarkanian and Dave Rose, whose BYU teams Jimmer'd the nation last season with a blistering attack. More so, this city wants this type of basketball. It hearkens back to Las Vegas' sports apex, as did the throaty, sellout crowd at the Thomas & Mack Center Saturday night that practically blew the Lobos all the way back to Albuquerque.
Rice also inherited a roster that made this season's "Let's Run" marketing campaign a no-brainer. Amplified by Moser's eligibility post-transfer from UCLA and rebalanced in the backcourt by the departure of eager shooter Tre'Von Willis, these Rebels go eight or nine deep with balanced scoring. They also rack up over 71 possessions a game, four more than last season (a very significant tempo change) and more than in any season under Kruger. The player mix feeds right into Rice's philosophical sweet spot.
"One of the things in addition to our athleticism that gives us a chance to be a very good transition team is our interchangeability," Rice said. "The fact that we have multiple ballhandlers, that we can initiate our offense with multiple guys."
With San Diego State still to come to Vegas and the Aztecs perhaps due to drop a close game or two elsewhere, the Rebels stand a solid chance of winning the Mountain West. And since they host the conference tournament (which thrills New Mexico coach Steve Alford to no end), a league-tourney double is quite possible. That would land the Rebels with a very strong NCAA tournament seed and fire up the footage from when assistant coach Stacey Augmon was fulfilling his Plastic Man moniker.
Still, there's a lingering, nagging question when assessing exactly how much of a March threat these Rebels will be: What happens if you can stop them from running? Both Wichita State and Wisconsin are strong teams that are nearly unbeatable at home, but those were easily UNLV's two worst performances of the season, in games that ended with 60 and 62 possessions, respectively. With no one who's a sure two points in a half-court set, can the Rebels handle a tedious walk?
"We've had plenty of games like that," Moser said, perhaps referencing equally slow tempos in wins against USC and Louisiana Monroe. "It's definitely tough, but we stepped up to the challenge. Sometimes it didn't happen our way, sometimes it did, so I guess we have to be more consistent."
Also, the counterargument to UNLV's offensive balance is its lack of a go-to scorer, which can strain a well-orchestrated system in crunch time. Rice counters that micro concern with a macro mindset of encouraging all shooters to let it fly if their feet are set and there's not a more open teammate available. He believes empowering the whole roster to look for offense will lead to the right shot coming from the right guy when one is required.
"Our guys play with tremendous confidence and I know sometimes we live with bad shots," Rice said. "I just think over the course of the season, giving guys confidence is much more important than managing every single shot."
Those worries will be March's fodder. For now, the team and the city can revel in the Rebels' 16-3 Division I mark and the optimism that this is just the start of the program jumping another level from the solid foundation built by Kruger. Earlier Saturday afternoon, Findlay Prep and Bishop Gorman -- two of the nation's best prep teams -- faced off next door at UNLV's Cox Pavilion. UNLV commit Christian Wood was playing, and two of those teams' brightest stars -- No. 1 overall player Shabazz Muhammad and top-five prospect Anthony Bennett -- are taking long looks at staying in town. Add in Pitt transfer big man Khem Birch (a good friend of Bennett's from Canada) and the Rebels' future looks very bright.
Asked about the present, and whether this experience was living up to the hopes he had when he left Westwood for the desert, Moser said, "Definitely. Ten times better than I thought it would be."
There are many people thinking the same thing about these Rebels and wondering exactly when in March (or April?) this run -- and the running -- will come to an end.