Lon Kruger has done it again, the UNLV Runnin' Rebels are the talk of Sin City.
They are off to a 6-0 start, with impressive wins at home against Nevada, Southern Illinois, and Louisville, and an impressive road win against Arizona—good enough for their best start in 17 years.
This team was expected to be good, but not this good, and not this soon.
There are a ton of new faces on this team, and all appear to be contributing much faster than almost anyone expected.
Just look at what Derrick Jasper did to Louisville (Please click on that link only if you are ready to see one of the best plays I've ever seen a college basketball team make).
Derrick Jasper missed a three; Steve Jones saved it from going out of bounds by diving into the Lousiville bench, Oscar Bellfield saved the ball from going out of the bounds again by (incredibly) bouncing it in-between a Louisville Cardinal's legs, then Trevon Willis found Derrick Jasper for an emphatic alley-oop dunk.
I watch a lot of basketball, and that was the best basketball play I've seen in a long time.
Jerry Tarkanian, the legendary UNLV coach, even said that this team is deeper than any of the teams he has ever coached; this depth will continue to pay more and more dividends as the season continues.
With many of its toughest non-conference tests behind them, could UNLV be 14-0 heading into its conference opener at BYU?
Here is a quick look at the remainder of UNLV's non-conference schedule:
12/5 at Santa Clara (4-3)
12/12 Kansas State (6-1)
12/15 at Southern Utah (3-5)
12/17 Weber State (2-4)
12/19 USC Upstate (1-5)
Kansas State is by far UNLV's toughest remaining non-conference test—the Wildcats are fresh of the heels of a victory over a ranked opponent at a neutral site (Dayton) and their only loss is by 12 to Ole Miss. But Kansas State's first true road game will be at UNLV. There should be an awesome crowd for that one, and I think UNLV will prevail.
Diamond Head Classic: Honolulu, Hawaii
12/22 vs. Southern Methodist (2-3)
12/24 vs. Hawaii (2-4) (Projected Opponent)
12/25 vs. St. Mary's (5-1) (Projected Opponent)
St. Mary's could be tough, but I like the Rebel's chances to take home the Diamond Head Classic.
After that, though, is when things will get really interesting.
They could easily be 14-0; in the Top 10, and highly ranked heading into their conference opener.
UNLV opens their conference slate with (perhaps) their two toughest games of the year:
1/6 at BYU (5-1)
1/9 at New Mexico (7-0)
If UNLV can win just one of those games, it would be huge for the program. Last year they beat BYU at the Marriot Center, the first Mountain West conference team to do so since Dave Rose took over as head coach at BYU four years ago. And New Mexico rarely loses at the Pitt in Albequerque.
But they ended up fizzling out down the stretch.
Even if this teams starts out 0-2 in the conference, they just might run the table the rest of the way, or maybe win 13 of their last 14 games.
They could be 27-3, heading into their conference tournament; which is played on their home court.
If UNLV won the conference tourney, they'd be 30-3, and have a regular season conference championship as well. They'd be well set up for a good tourney run to the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight.
If they could do that, UNLV would likely be looking at a Top 10 ranking, and a two or three seed in the NCAA tournament.
Know what the scary thing is (at least for fans of other college basketball teams)?
Next year, UNLV returns all five starters, and five of its six key contributors off of the bench; only losing Senior big man; Darris Santee (5 PPG and 5 RPG). And the Rebels add Kansas transfer and big man Quintrell Thomas. Who if as good as advertised, will make losing Santee a distant memory
For all that Lon Kruger has done for UNLV basketball, it has yet to take home a (regular season) conference championship.
This looks like it just might be the year to do so. And next year might just be the year to surpass whatever UNLV ends up accomplishing this year; making a deep tourney run. The sky really is the limit for this program.
The Thomas and Mack is an excellent facility, and attendance has been excellent so far this season.
Lon Kruger has already brought this program to heights unseen since the Jerry Tarkanian era (a Sweet Sixteen run in 2007). And it looks like UNLV has the opportunity to match, or even surpass that accomplishment.
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