After many long and grueling months, the UNLV Running Rebels finally take the court this week. With an exhibition contest against Washburn tonight and the first official game against Pittsburgh State on Saturday, Lon Kruger’s squad has its first opportunity to make an impression.
With considerable roster turnover and a disappointing finish last season, questions and concerns abound.
The time has arrived for answers; for concrete evidence to supplant speculation.
Beginning tonight, the Rebels will establish their identity through performance and results.
The 10 biggest questions, concerns, and intriguing storylines heading into the 2009-2010 UNLV basketball season:
How much will Wink Adams and Rene Rougeau be missed?
Despite senior-year struggles, Wink Adams and Rene Rougeau were the heart and soul of the team. When healthy, Adams was their best offensive weapon. On the defensive end, Rougeau’s impact was huge.
The efforts of Tre’Von Willis and Oscar Bellfield should ease the Rebels’ transition. Both should increase their offensive production and their on-the-ball defense will have a contagious effect.
Just how good are Derrick Jasper and Chace Stanback?
UNLV fans have been buzzing about the dynamic duo for over a year and will finally be rewarded for their patience. Both were highly touted high school recruits. Both chose to attend powerhouse programs. Both decided to transfer to UNLV. Both are now poised to insert themselves into the nightmares of MWC rivals.
While opinions on the scope and force of their impact vary, two things are clear. Their impact will be large and it will be felt immediately.
What is to be expected from the incoming freshmen?
Head coach Lon Kruger brought in a very solid recruiting class. All three freshmen will have the opportunity to make their mark on the team. Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins are both versatile backcourt players capable of contributing right away. But with the guard depth the Rebels have, they’ll have to fight their way onto the court.
Carlos Lopez is a bit of a wild card. The lanky Puerto Rican is skilled and quick. Unfortunately, the thin-framed big man lost 30 pounds due to a summer illness. Once he bulks back up to playing shape, minutes will be there for the taking.
Can the big men get the job done?
At one point last season, foul issues led to 6-foot-3 Mo Rutledge guarding 7-foot-2 Luke Neville of Utah. Though Rutledge battled admirably, that should never have to happen.
The addition of Carlos Lopez and Matt Shaw’s return from a medical redshirt are reason for optimism. In addition, Brice Massamba dropped 40 pounds of unneeded girth and has demonstrated explosiveness.
Darris Santee, who struggled last year and was eventually benched, has outplayed all three in early practices and scrimmages.
The Rebels are much better equipped to battle in the paint.
Have rebounding issues been resolved?
UNLV finished dead-last in the MWC in rebounding last season.
That can’t happen again. The roster overhaul has led to a dramatically taller lineup. The increase in size will certainly help.
The aforementioned Jasper/Stanback combination will help alleviate the Rebels rebound woes, as well. Both are outstanding rebounders for their position.
Ultimately, rebounding is an effort stat. If they play hungry, they’ll win the battle. Size is no longer an excuse.
Will the Rebels run?
Last year, UNLV scored less than 50 points more times (two) than they scored over 90 (zero). The transition game was nonexistent.
This is the most athletic team Lon Kruger has had during his tenure in Las Vegas. They’ll enjoy impressive backcourt depth. This team is built to run.
Kruger’s calling card has been aggressive, turnover-inducing, pressure defense. That style, combined with a slew of terrific ball-handlers, athletes and shooters, will lead to an exciting brand of basketball.
Live by the three, or die by the three?
The Rebels made just 34.5 percent of their three-point attempts during the '08-'09 season, good enough for second-worst in the MWC.
Kendall Wallace is one of the best shooters in the conference. He will have more clean looks this year thanks to the efforts of multiple teammates who will excel at creating offense through penetration. When the defense collapses, Wallace will reap the benefits.
Oscar Bellfield and Tre’Von Willis should see an increase in their long-distance efficiency as Derrick Jasper assumes the role of floor general, allowing them to play off the ball and spot up.
Matt Shaw's return should boost the percentage as well. He has as soft a touch from long range as any Rebel.
Can the Rebels protect their home court?
Last year, UNLV lost four games at the Thomas and Mack Center. The previous two years, they lost three home games total.
This year, the Rebels will host a collection of quality opponents. UNR, Southern Illinois, Louisville and Kansas State will all head to Las Vegas to challenge the Rebels before conference play begins.
Home court advantage is incredibly important in the MWC. It is extremely difficult to win on the road and a perfect (or near-perfect) home record is the key to finishing atop the conference standings. Dropping games at homes kills conference title aspirations.
Who takes the last shot?
The Rebels are looking to bounce back after suffering a number of painfully close losses last season.
Oscar Bellfield provided the most memorable moment of the year with his late-game winner on the road at Louisville. Wallace has knocked down some cold-blooded daggers in his UNLV career.
Derrick Jasper, however, is the leader of this team. With the game on the line, the ball will be in his hands. The decision to drive, dish, defer, shoot or screen will be his to make.
How far will they go?
UNLV has a great shot at playing in the NCAA tournament this year. Their early schedule provides several opportunities for marquee wins. Even at home, a victory over Louisville, Kansas State or both will seriously bolster the postseason resume.
A road game at Arizona and a holiday trip to Hawaii for the Diamond Head Classic could strengthen their case as well.
The Rebels' ace-in-the-hole is the conference tournament, which will once again be played in the Thomas and Mack Center. Even if they struggle this year, the Rebels are always dangerous in the quasi-home setting the tourney provides.
At this point, nothing is certain. Finally, this week, the picture begins to materialize. The fun starts now.