Not since 20 years ago has the UNLV men's basketball team drawn this much excitement as the decade comes to a screeching halt next Friday.
In his sixth year as the coach of the Runnin' Rebels, Lon Kruger and his 2009-2010 edition are certainly evoking memories of Greg Anthony, Larry Johnson, and Stacey Augmon.
Ranked 20th in this week's ESPN/USA Today poll, the Rebels are in Hawaii this week for the inaugural Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.
Being the only ranked team there is not a guarantee to the championship for the 10-1 Rebels. In the other side of the bracket lie USC and Saint Mary's, both teams that have beaten ranked opponents this year.
However, if last night's drubbing of SMU is any indication of just how strong and how deep these Rebels are, it looks like it's going to be a year where UNLV and perhaps even three other Mountain West teams will be joining them in the big dance in March 2010.
Last night the Rebels used 11 men to roll to a one-sided 67-53 win over the Mustangs from SMU. The final score was no indication of the beating that took place on the floor.
The Rebels jumped out to a 42-19 halftime lead and never looked back. They increased the lead to 28 midway through the second half and allowed the SMU Mustangs to get as close as 12 points with about two minutes to play.
Coach Kruger, knowing there would be three games in four days, didn't want any of his starters going more than 30 minutes. They didn't—26 minutes to Chase Stanback, who put up 11 points, while Derrick Jasper's 26 minutes yielded nine points, and reserve freshman guard Anthony Marshall added 12 points in his 26 minutes.
Here's how balanced the Rebs were last night. Eleven players entered the game. Every one of them took at least one shot. Nine of them scored, and all of them had at least one rebound.
This was the best team effort in any one game that I have witnessed in the 15 years I've lived in Las Vegas and followed the Runnin' Rebels. Last year's team, which went 21-11 and lost to Kentucky in the NIT, graduated three senior starters, including their most explosive player in four-year starter Wink Adams.
Kruger has been an excellent recruiter from the junior colleges since he arrived on the scene six years ago, and this year's crop of Stanback and Jasper has already filled the void from last year's graduates.
Tre'Von Willis, the team's emotional leader, who's nursing a bad ankle, came off the bench last night and in 25 minutes had 12 points and four rebounds, while normally reserve freshman guard Anthony Marshall had his best game to date. Not thought of as a great shooter, he went 6-of-9 with two steals, two assists, and three rebounds along with his career-high 12 points.
Tonight in one semifinal the Rebels meet host Hawaii, who defeated the College of Charleston 84-71. The winner of tonight's game will meet the winner of the USC-Saint Mary's game for the championship on Friday night.
Hawaii is 6-4 but has won its last four straight. Two of their losses came at the hands of the other two powerhouses in the Mountain West, BYU and New Mexico. Those two teams and UNLV are the co-favorites in the Mountain West this season.
It should be a fun year as the Rebels try to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years.