After notching hardfought road victories over Arizona and Santa Clara last week, the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels moved up to No. 17 in coaches poll and No. 18 in the AP poll. The Rebels are ranked in the top 20 in both polls for the first time since the final week of the 2007 season after being eliminated from the NCAA tournament in the Sweet 16.
UNLV’s 7-0 start is their best in nearly two decades. Their RPI is 11.
Washington, one spot above of the Rebels in both polls, is the only team west of Texas ranked ahead of UNLV.
Lon Kruger has built the Rebels into one of the best programs in the western United States.
Rebels fans who have followed the program closely are not surprised by the team's return to relevance. What has been surprising, however, is the timing.
UNLV returned just two starters. They were joined by just two reserves that logged significant minutes the previous year. The 11-man rotation being utilized by Kruger consists of one walk-on, two freshmen, three sophomores, four players coming off a redshirt, five players who had never logged a single minute for the Rebels before this year, seven guards, one forward, and one three-headed monster.
The roster turnover and lack of experience raised preseason concerns about cohesiveness and chemistry.
Those concerns are gone now, replaced by seven victories, no losses, and a well deserved national ranking.
Such gratifying early success would likely have been predicted entering the 2010-2011 season, but even the most feverishly die hard Rebel fans had to approach this season with some hesitance.
This figured to be a learning season, an up-and-down campaign. There were too many new players; too many unanswered questions; too many prevalent maybes and perhapses.
All of those obstacles would take time to overcome, and the 2009-2010 season would be a building block for future success.
Somewhere between last season and next season, this season took us all by surprise. Success snuck up behind the Rebels and plopped itself in their lap, 12 months ahead of schedule.
Kansas State visits Las Vegas this weekend, and the Wildcats and the Rebels will face off on Saturday at 4 p.m. PDT in what promises to be an entertaining affair.
Both teams like to run. Both teams have great depth. Both teams have outstanding guard play. Both teams have shot poorly from long range. Both teams play aggressive, physical, man-to-man defense.
With a victory, UNLV would move to 8-0 and likely find themselves in the top 15 of next week’s polls.
Statistical Food for Thought:
The Rebels are averaging 17.9 assists (12th nationally), 10.7 turnovers (11th nationally), and have an assist/turnover ratio of 1.7-to-1 (third nationally). They are also allowing opponents just 3.1 steals per contest, which leads the nation.
Kendall Wallace has made 11 of 25 three-pointers (44 percent).
Oscar Bellfield and Tre’Von Willis have made a combined 13 of 51 three-pointers (25.5 percent).
Anthony Marshall and Steve Jones have made a combined one of 18 three-pointers (5.5%).
The Rebels’ three-headed monster at center (Brice Massamba, Darris Santee, and Matt Shaw) are still contributing terrific stats collectively. The trio is averaging 18.4 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.7 blocks, and 0.7 turnovers per game.
Not to be outdone, the three-headed point guard monster (Oscar Bellfield, Tre’Von Willis, and Derrick Jasper) are putting up 35.4 points, 11.7 rebounds, 10.9 assists, and 3.6 steals. In fairness, they are playing twice as many total minutes.
Chace Stanback has had a slow start offensively (6.1 points, 33 percent FGs), but he is leading the Rebels in rebounds (5.7), blocks (0.9), and steals (2.3).