Road to The Final Four at Ford Field: No. 20 UNLV
Most college basketball teams play a few exhibition games against the cross-town Division III team to prepare for the season. If you are UNLV, you travel across the Pacific Ocean to Australia and play six games against teams from the Land Down Under.
The Runnin' Rebels got a valuable jump-start on their season with their summer trip since UNLV's veteran players got six extra games before the season with the eight new players on the roster.
Expectations will be high for the old and the new faces alike. The Rebels return four key seniors and bring in several impact players to compliment the upperclassmen.
Those four seniors have been a part of the last two UNLV teams that have won 57 games over the past two seasons. Newcomer Tre'Von Willis also has experience on a team that knows how to win. The former Memphis Tiger was a part of Coach John Calipari's 30-win team.
Lon Kruger's team hasn't gone without success in the NCAA Tournament; UNLV has won three tournament games over the past two years, but the 2009 Rebels have the talent to win that many games in this year's tournament alone.
Fans have noticed and responded to the Rebels' success. Season ticket says are up almost 20-percent compared to this date last year. 1,000 more season ticket holders will watch the show put on by one of the preseason Mountain West Player of the Year candidates, Wink Adams.
The senior guard returns as the team's leading scorer and third leading returning scorer in the conference at 16.9 points per game. Adams led an offense that simply didn't turn the ball over.
UNLV had five players rank in the top 500 in the country in turnover percentage including three that return for the 2009 season. Senior forward Joe Darger, who finishes the second most possessions of any returning player, turned the ball over only nine percent of the time, the eighth best rate in the entire country.
Adams's combination of taking care of the ball well and good effective field goal percentage, makes him a highly efficient offensive player.
Adams will be a part of a three guard offense; UNLV's trio of guards will be one of the best in the west.
Fellow senior, Rene Rougeau led the team in rebounding in 2008 as a guard and with his great leaping ability, he'll pound the boards again. Rougeau ranked eighth in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage despite only being 6'6''. Rougeau won't be asked to be a big time scorer; that will be up to Adams and the aforementioned Joe Darger.
The 6'7'' Darger started most of the season as UNLV's center because of a lack of depth in the front court, but he will be able to go back to a more natural position as a forward in 2009. He's a prototypical mid-major forward who can jump out to the three point line and drill the open trey.
Red-shirt freshman Beas Hamga will replace Darger as the starting center. The native of Cameroon stands 7'0'' and is one UNLV's highest rated recruits in years.
Hamga won't contribute a lot on offense since he's very unpolished still, but his raw size and athleticism should make him an imposing defender. Hamga will split time with Junior College transfer Darris Santee.
The final member of the starting lineup will be the Memphis transfer Tre'Von Willis. He's a former three star recruit that will give UNLV a jolt of energy in the backcourt. He lacks actual game experience despite playing for the 2007 30 win Tiger team. He played in just 17 games and averaged only six minutes per game.
If Willis falters, a senior will be there to take his place. Mareceo Rutledge averaged just 11 minutes per game last season, but should expect to see a larger role after standout combo guard/forward Chris Terry graduated.
2009 Season Forecast
UNLV will be the class of the Mountain West, but they will have competition. Utah, BYU, and San Diego State will all make runs at the Rebels and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Lon Kruger's crew should be able to get through the Mountain West with 12 or 13 wins.
The non-conference schedule won't be a walk in the park, but will be manageable. The Rebels' biggest game is the last of non-conference schedule against Louisville. They will also host potential tournament team Arizona and either BCS team Cincinnati or Florida State.
Best Case Scenario
UNLV follows the model of the typical successful mid-major and wins with senior leadership. Wink Adams wins Mountain West Player of the Year and leads UNLV into the Sweet Sixteen. With the right matchups, the Rebels have the talent to advance into the Elite Eight.
Worst Case Scenario
The potential lack of depth becomes a reality and costs UNLV several big games. The Rebels finish second or third in the conference and make the NCAA Tournament as a bubble team only to be bounced in the first round.
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