Taking stock of the Runnin’ Rebels at the season’s halfway point
Thu, Jan 12, 2012 (midnight)
Photo: Julie Jacobson/AP
Junior guard anthony Marshall sounds direct as the Rebels prepare to enter the second half of their season ranked No. 12. “We feel like not even the sky’s the limit,” he says. “We feel like we have unlimited potential.”
There’s a lot of that optimism floating around Las Vegas these days, and UNLV has earned it. At 16-2, the Rebels began their eight-day midseason layoff tied for the most victories in the country.
Based on their play to this point and remaining schedule, doubling that win total doesn’t appear out of the question. It certainly won’t be easy, though. The Mountain West is known for tough home-court environments, and every team in the league boasts a winning record at this point.
- Runnin' Rebels
- Cram for the season's second half here
The Rebels will not only have to continue to rely on their strengths, but also improve on weaknesses that led to two defeats and a few other close calls.
First, their strengths:
Forcing the tempo When coach Dave Rice took over last April, he promised to bring back the style from his days as a role player on coach Jerry Tarkanian’s back-to-back Final Four early ’90s teams. And indeed, UNLV has put itself on the national stage with a fast-break pace that took down then-No. 1 North Carolina on November 26 and has helped the Rebels achieve their highest ranking since 1993. UNLV ranks 11th in the nation in points per game (81.3) and fifth in assists (18.8).
“The last couple of years, we’ve been a ballclub that prides itself on defense,” Marshall says. “With [Rice] bringing in defensive-minded assistants, that didn’t really change, but you bring in coach Rice, who’s an offensive guy, and you turn it up at both ends. You defend like crazy and then sprint it up court as fast as you can.”
Marshall and senior guard Oscar Bellfield are the primary triggermen for the Rebels’ many fast breaks. Senior swingman Chace Stanback and sophomore forward Mike Moser have been the biggest beneficiaries. Stanback leads the team with 14.8 points per game. Moser, who’s averaging 14.2 points and a team-leading 11.1 rebounds, says fast-paced attacks have become second nature for the Rebels—and they’re only getting better.
“Offensively, I think our transition improved to where teams really can’t handle us when we get in push mode,” Moser says.
Balance The opponents’ scouting reports, especially for second games against conference teams, will focus on slowing the pace and taking away Moser and Stanback. That’s where UNLV’s depth should kick in.
Marshall has shown that he’s capable of taking over a game, as he did against Hawaii. Bellfield and junior guard Justin Hawkins are each just under 10 points per game, and sophomore forward Carlos Lopez is shooting 74 percent from the floor in a limited role.
Confidence The postgame scene after a 62-51 loss at Wisconsin on December 10 was downright grim. Just over a month later, it feels like a distant memory. Since then, the Rebels have rattled off seven consecutive victories. Most of them—including wins over Illinois and California—came in convincing fashion.
Whatever happened in the days following that defeat in Madison has altered the course of the season, putting conference-title expectations squarely on a first-year coach and his super-athletic team. And they seem quite comfortable with that. “We feel like we’re good enough to carry that title,” Moser says. “We want to be No. 1 at the end of the season, so why not start [now]?”
To fulfill their lofty expectations, the Rebels will need to improve in three key areas:
Perimeter defense In their two losses, the Rebels have been lit up from the outside by opposing players. Guards Joe Ragland of Wichita State and Ben Brust of Wisconsin combined to shoot 15-of-16 from 3-point range, underscoring why perimeter defense—challenging shots and limiting dribble-drives—will be so important the rest of the way.
The Rebels have already gotten better in that area, a key to their current win streak. “The most improvement probably came from team defense, probably in the past month,” Moser says. “We were a team that was getting beat by the 3-point line.”
Hawkins is the team’s biggest defensive asset on the perimeter. He’s the Rebels’ best on-ball defender, and his constant pressure forces mistakes upon which his teammates can capitalize.
Energy, from the opening tip Lackluster starts—like the kind that came against Wichita State, Wisconsin, UTEP and Hawaii—could be the most vexing issue facing the Rebels. Depth is one of the team’s biggest assets, but if players lack the hustle to execute the Rebels’ up-tempo style all game, that depth won’t do them much good.
The onus is on the players to take every opponent seriously and show up ready to go. They’re saying all the right things, but their actions will cast the ultimate vote.
Avoiding complacency One of the toughest things for the Rebels to overcome at this stage might be the praise heaped on them. So far there haven’t been any indications that the players are taking anything for granted, but the Rebels could be ranked in the top 10 by mid-January, and that would leave a lot of season left under a bright spotlight.
Fans won’t have to wait long to see how UNLV handles expectations. Conference play opens on January 14 at No. 22 San Diego State, one of the most difficult places to play in the Mountain West. Will the Rebels play hard from the start? Can they continue to guard the perimeter? Has UNLV really recaptured the magic of its past?
It’s almost time to start the second half. And Rice sounds ready to go. “We finished our nonconference season proud of where we are, but not content by any stretch,” Rice says. “We’ve done something that’s really good, and we have a chance to do something that’s great.
It starts Saturday.”