The UNLV Runnin’ Rebels are off to a terrific start. They have been consistently impressive, but are far from perfect. The season is relatively young, and the Rebels have work yet to do if they hope to achieve their full potential.
In honor of the holiday season, it seems appropriate and festive to submit a Christmas wish list for the next three-plus months of UNLV basketball.
My reasoning is simple: All fans want basically the same things.
They want victories, national respect, dominating performances, wins over rivals, conference titles, a trip to the big dance, and ultimately, success in the NCAA tournament.
All of these things are inseparably intertwined with a common ideal: winning.
A wish list would be pointless; a waste of time.
Therefore, rather than list a bunch of obvious milestones the team hopes to achieve, I’m taking a different approach. Rather than answering the hypothetical question, “What do we want?” I’ll tackle the much more difficult issue:
“How do they make it happen?”
For all their early accomplishments, this UNLV team still has its flaws. In order to continue to rack up wins and prolong a pattern of success well into March, they must get better.
In the merry spirit of Christmas and family get-togethers, let the nitpicking begin!
The first, and perhaps most frightening concern evident in the Rebels’ early play relates to the mercurial territory 21 feet from the basket and beyond. The three-point line is the great equalizer in basketball. Often the outcome of a contest can swing on the hinges of a few timely long-range bombs.
UNLV's struggles shooting the ball from long distance have been obvious. The Rebels are connecting on just 29.5 percent of their three-point attempts, good enough for 253rd nationally. As the road gets tougher in conference play, and postseason play, that percentage needs to increase.
There is reason for optimism. UNLV has seen the percentage bumped up recently. Over their last three games, the Rebels have hit 42 percent of their threes, most recently connecting on 7-of-14 against SMU in Hawaii.
Matt Shaw (6-of-9) and Chace Stanback (7-of-13) seem to have found their rhythm from outside, but must prove they can maintain such accuracy over the long haul.
Not only has UNLV been shaky shooting from deep, they’ve also had issues defending the three-point line. The Rebels are allowing opponents to connect on 34 percent of their three-point attempts, 172nd nationally. That number may be slightly inflated by the gut-busting, shooting clinic put on by Jacob Pullen and his Kansas State teammates (14-for-23), but is an eyebrow raiser nonetheless.
It is worth mentioning that BYU and New Mexico, the two teams most likely to give UNLV fits in conference play, both rank in the top 50 nationally, connecting on 39.9 percent of their three-point attempts.
There are 197 Division I basketball teams that have an average rebound margin of zero or better. UNLV (-0.4) is not one of them. They have failed to out-rebound the opponent in seven of their last nine games.
One possible solution: a little more playing time for Darris Santee. I generally try not to second-guess head coach Lon Kruger. He seems to know what he’s doing. The rebounding numbers are, however, a little alarming, and Santee is by far the best rebounder on the team.
Santee averages a solid 12.5 rebounds per 40 minutes. Chace Stanback is second on the team with a hair under nine boards per 40 minutes.
Santee plays just 14 minutes per game.
If rebounding continues to be an issue, Santee’s production won’t go unnoticed.
Games are frequently won or lost at the free throw line. The Rebels shoot a respectable, but underwhelming, 69.5 percent from the charity stripe. Fans would love see that number creep up over 70 percent.
The real distress is how often UNLV is sending the opposition to the line for freebies.
Only 10 teams in Division I commit more personal fouls per game than the Rebels (22.7). Lon Kruger has depth to use, and loves to employ an aggressive, attacking defense, but the foul totals are becoming staggering.
BYU played Nevada at the Orleans Arena this past Tuesday. The Cougars made a mind-boggling 27-of-28 free throws in the game. They shoot 78.6 percent from the stripe, fourth nationally.
Against the top competition in the MWC, the Rebels will need to do a better job of keeping them away from the line.
UNLV is off to an extraordinary start. They have played well and should only get better. The fact that there is clear room for improvement is deliciously encouraging food for thought.
A conference championship and NCAA tournament success are at the top of the wish list of every avid Rebel fan. With a little tweaking, a little discipline, and a little improvement in a few key areas, there’s no reason they can’t get there.