Sin City sells seduction. At nearly every turn on or near The Strip, you can find something to titillate your senses. Gambling, food, booze, take your pick of a vice that can break even the most composed guest. Even the visitor's bureau appeals to your inner heathen, nudging you to be naughty with its landmark "What happens in Vegas" ad campaign. It's all incredibly tantalizing, even if the promise (and premise) of the city often can be more attractive than its actuality.
Appropriately, no team in the nation is more seductive more than the city's own Rebels. They have won 75 games over the past three seasons, bring back five key components from last season's team, and added numerous high-impact pieces like Pitt transfer big man Khem Birch, heralded freshman forward Anthony Bennett, freshman sharpshooter Katin Reinhardt and USC transfer scoring guard Bryce Dejean-Jones. Their frontcourt depth would be the envy of any program, let alone one in a Mountain West that's typically loaded in the backcourt but not rife with skilled size. Everything appears to be in place for the most highly-anticipated season since the end of the Tarkanian heyday two decades ago.
"I've been here four years and I really haven't felt the city this vibrant, this passionate, in expectation for basketball season," said senior guard Justin Hawkins.
But then you look deeper and see that no one on this roster has won an NCAA tournament game. The Rebels have lost as the higher seed in the Round of 64 in each of the past three seasons. You eyeball what they lost from last year's roster and realize that forward Mike Moser, a mega-athlete but not exactly deadeye from deep, took the most threes of any returning player. Point guard Oscar Bellfield is gone. So is second-leading scorer Chace Stanback. Roles are different. Faces are different. Suddenly, a sure thing isn't so sure.
If the Rebels are going to live up to billing, to have their reality be as good or better than the anticipation, then another S-word will have to be present throughout the campaign. That word is steady, and it begins with Anthony Marshall, who is transitioning from a combo guard role to be the team's primary ballhandler. It will be his job to orchestrate all the fun, new pieces, and also set an example for the freshmen who will back him up in the Rebels' full-throttle system.
"Anthony Marshall is, without question, a key to our team this year," said second-year head coach Dave Rice, "but so are Katin Reinhardt and Daquan Cook, who will also serve us at that spot."
There is a lot of good for Marshall to take away from last season's team. The Rebels finished second in the nation in assist rate (percentage of baskets that were assisted) and, according to Rice, were also second in transition baskets. UNLV's motto has changed from "Let's run" to "Run as one," but the goal is the same: create turnovers and handle the defensive glass in order to punish opponents in the open floor.
The sheer variety of skills the Rebels can put on the floor this season will create many issues for opponents. They have bigs who can handle the ball in transition and guards who can post up, creating the opportunity to invert the offense and exploit all sorts of mismatches. What seems bound to change from last year, though, is the type and volume of shots coming from the dynamic frontcourt, which is where Marshall's decision-making will be paramount. Last season, the Rebels admittedly settled for too many jump shots down the stretch of the season as the guard-heavy, seven-man rotation tired.
"Last year, we were heavily a backcourt team. We lived and died by the three, lived and died by the jump shot. So we felt like any open shot we had, we were going to take it," said Hawkins, a defensive stalwart who will log good minutes at the 2 this season. "A lot of times, that was early in the shot clock and when we weren't settled on the offensive end."
Now with much more depth and more bigs with varied skills, the Rebels will continue to run, but it may be to create layups or hit the trailing big more often than finding an open wing 3. And they'll definitely look different in the halfcourt. Rice said there has been a concerted effort in practice to focus on getting the ball inside consistently, but even when it's back in Marshall's hands, he should have numerous appealing choices. UNLV's perimeter shooting, at this point, is a question mark, so getting to the rim, either through the post or off the dribble, may be a bigger priority.
"In the pick-and-roll, if the big man doesn't stop me, go get a layup," Marshall said, when asked about running Rice's system with quality bigs. "If he does, throw it back out, and Mike [Moser] and Anthony Bennett, they're small forwards who play the big spot, the power forward spot, so that pretty much makes it easier on me [because they can make handle and perimeter shots]."
Marshall, who was the Nevada player of the year at Mojave High School before arriving at UNLV, said he doesn't feel any pressure of expectations this season, but they're certainly there for the Rebels. The Mountain West will again be a bear and UNLV has a challenging nonconference slate before then, but ultimately, with the way the NCAA tournament looms over everything in college basketball these days, the Rebels will be judged on what they accomplish in March.
While the roster looks loaded for the foreseeable future, they know this is their last chance to make a run. A trio of postseason failures is weighing on Marshall, Hawkins and the rest of this senior class. If the guards hold up their end of the bargain, the seduction of preseason may morph into postseason satisfaction.
"I want to make this one special," Hawkins said. "I've been in the tournament three years and haven't made it out of the first round yet. Definitely, that's going to be an emphasis this year to make it out of the first round by any means necessary. Haven't won any championships here ... there are a lot of things I've wanted to accomplish and for our team to accomplish that I haven't accomplished yet."