UNLV Basketball: Rebels Off to a Sizzling Start

Chris GolightlyCorrespondent INovember 30, 2009

LAS VEGAS - NOVEMBER 18:  Oscar Bellfield #0 of the UNLV Rebels drives around Armon Johnson #23 of the Nevada Wolf Pack during their game at the Thomas & Mack Center on November 18, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada. UNLV won 88-75.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Two years ago, UNLV men’s basketball coach Lon Kruger was voted the MWC Coach of the Year, as well as the United States Basketball Writer’s Association District VIII Coach of the Year, after leading an undermanned and undersized squad to a conference championship and a first round win in the NCAA tournament.

If the Rebels can maintain their current pace and level of play, Kruger will make that season seem underwhelming by comparison.

UNLV tipped off the season amidst rampant uncertainty. The Rebels lost three of their top four scorers from a senior-laden team that struggled with inconsistency last year.  A bevy of talented newcomers stepped in, eager to prove themselves.

Words like "potential" and "upside" were thrown around liberally in the preseason. More cautious prognosticators assumed the team would be a work in progress, taking time to pull it all together and then posing a "potential" threat to strong competition.

Many esteemed journalists and analysts overlooked the unproven Rebels, likely with last season’s disappointing finish still etched into their memories.

Despite little preseason fanfare outside of Clark County, the Rebels have shot out of the gate and onto the national scene.

Unheralded and ignored just a few weeks ago, UNLV dispatched Rick Pitino and his Louisville Cardinals for the second consecutive year. The Rebels led the entire game, even holding a 19 point lead in the second half.  It was the third quality victory of the young season for UNLV. Nevada and Southern Illinois fell to the Rebels at the Thomas and Mack Center the week before.

The strong start has earned UNLV a well deserved spot in this week’s top 25 polls, released this morning. The Rebels come in at No. 21 in the coaches poll and No. 24 in the AP poll.   

In just a few short weeks, Lon Kruger has churned a mishmash of recruits, transfers, and returnees into a deep, entertaining, and explosive team.

UNLV has overwhelmed their opposition, utilizing an unconventional 11-man rotation to wear down visitors and eventually pull away.

Kruger has been a master chef.  He’s mixed and matched ingredients, rotating lineups and combinations into a deliciously confusing yet always satisfying concoction.

The early results are surprisingly tasty.

If the season is a meal, November games are just an appetizer. The main course is yet to come, then hopefully a hearty dessert.

The Rebels must not forget last year’s collapse too soon. After a victory over Louisville at Freedom Hall last December, UNLV was 12-2 and on the verge of breaking into the top 25. Shortly thereafter, the season slowly began to crumble.

The Rebels head out on the road for the first time this week. They’ll visit Arizona on Wednesday night in what is sure to be a challenge. Saturday night they’ll take on Santa Clara.

Kruger will do his best to remind his team of the bitter flavor they endured post-Louisville in 2008.

Five games in, UNLV cannot allow feelings of satisfaction to linger.

The appetizer was delicious, but if anything, the Rebels should be even hungrier.