It’s that time of year again, folks. College basketball is back (almost)! If you’re anything like me, the end of last season feels like it was about 5 years ago, and waiting for the next season to finally get here has been insufferable at best. For UNLV fans, it’s usually because the previous season was a monumental disappointment, and the hope that springs eternal for them is that this will (hopefully) be the year UNLV raises itself back to prominence.
The Mountain West released its preseason standings and player projections today, and if their lowly opinion of the Rebels stands up, it’s not going to be this team that gets the Rebels back into the limelight. According to the MWC media, the league will pan out like this.
1. Colorado State
2. San Diego State
4. Boise State
5. Utah State
6. Fresno State
8. New Mexico/Wyoming
10. San Jose State
11. Air Force
I can hear the indignant cries of UNLV fans now. “Disrespect” is the word I see most often correlated with these preseason prognostications. While I agree that the Rebels are too low here, I don’t disagree with the media’s stance. At some point, UNLV is going to actually have to prove on the basketball court that these rankings are actual slights against their program and not the unfortunate reality of their situation.
Fortunately, I do think that this season in particular that UNLV can and will prove people wrong. My Top 4 would be this.
1. San Diego State
2. Colorado State
So, clearly, I have some differences of opinion where the top teams will end up. At best, the MWC is a 2-bid league in my opinion. Colorado State is going to be very good, but they’re not on the Aztec’s level. The Rams have a solid, veteran group, but they’re undersized and a streaky shooting bunch. SDSU’s recruiting, and roster construction will keep them at the top of the conference, where they’ve been consistently since the Steve Fisher days. UNR with Sherfield could definitely win the league. Particularly since Alford knows exactly how to win the MWC and do so with regularity. Realistically, I feel any one of these teams could cut down the net at the T&M come conference tournament time.
Here’s why I think UNLV could be that team:
The one obvious and most important thing that Kevin Kruger did once he took over for Otzelberger was to improve the size, length, and athleticism on the roster. Vastly. I won’t totally lambast Devin Tillis. He had a high basketball IQ, he was a good passer, and he worked hard. All admirable traits. But he was closer to 6’4 than the 6’6 he was listed as in the media guide. And unfortunately, he was the player Otzelberger relied on to play power forward more often than not. And if Mbacke Diong was in foul trouble (which, let’s face it, he was often), Moses Wood was the go-to guy to back up the center position. Again, not taking it out on Wood. He was a pretty good player when it was all said and done. But he would only be 6’8 if he took to wearing 70’s style platform shoes.
Kruger’s iteration of the Runnin’ Rebels will have no such problems. Royce Hamm, the Texas transfer can quite literally jump out of the gym. Not to mention he’s actually 6’9. No embellishment is needed for his bio in the media guide. When he goes up to block shots, he has to be cognizant of not hitting his head on the rim while he’s up there. David Muoka, a 6’10 transfer from Lamar is going to remind people of Khem Birch and Joel Anthony before it’s all said and done. He blocks shots as naturally as he breathes and walks. Then there’s Victor Iwuakor. He could be deemed “undersized” by some, but he’s 6’7 and he’s arguably the best leaper on the team. He can literally guard 1-5 with his ridiculous lateral mobility, and tenaciousness. He also likes to block shots, just like Hamm and Muoka.
For depth, there’s Reece Brown, one of the holdovers from the Otzelberger era. An outlier in terms of the former coach’s recruiting philosophy. Brown is 6’9 and another big-time leaper, with length. Finally, James Hampshire, the transfer from Pacific is a 7-footer who runs the floor as good or better than anyone out west. Do yourself a favor and go watch his highlights on YouTube. There’s plenty of footage of him blocking Mblocke when the Rebels faced Pacific a couple of years back. He’s a great depth piece, who could see time this season.
UNLV also has a pair of preseason MWC performers on its roster. First and foremost, the biggest recruiting win thus far for this new staff was convincing Bryce Hamilton to come back for one more season. He could easily be at Kansas right now. As for his game, I’m preaching to the choir here. Hamilton is an electric scorer who has an NBA-level midrange game. Two seasons ago he led the nation in midrange accuracy, hitting an astounding 61% of his attempts. Last season saw a bit of a dip in his efficiency, but Hamilton played with a bad ankle for long portions of the MWC schedule. Add that to him being keyed on by opposing defenses and scouting reports, he went from being a 20 ppg scorer (in the MWC) 2 years ago and a first-team all-conference selection to an 18 ppg scorer, and a 2nd teamer. I very much expect Hamilton to return to form, and he will contend for MWC Player of the Year.
The other preseason selection for UNLV was Keshon Gilbert for MWC Freshman of the Year. Gilbert is a local point guard by way of St Louis, where he spent his senior year honing his craft and winning a state title for vaunted Missouri powerhouse Vashon. Gilbert is also the only true freshman on UNLV’s roster, so he has had to grow up fast. Reports out of practice are that he’s done just that (and then some). For those not familiar with Gilbert, to say he’s ultra-competitive would be a gross understatement. Keshon is ferocious, more accurately. Currently, he’s carving out a role for himself on this team by being a disruptive demon on defense. Seeing as though that coach Kruger wants this team to hang its hat on that side of the court, you could bet your mortgage that Gilbert will play an important role in getting stops for this Rebel team all season long.
One player who I do feel isn’t getting enough pub is Mike Nuga. If not for Bryce Hamilton coming back, this would be Nuga’s team. The 6’2 Kent State transfer is insanely strong, fast, and athletic. He runs the floor like a freight train, and he is going to be an utter delight in transition for Kruger. It was no surprise that he averaged almost 18 ppg last year. In fact, when Kent State took on Virginia last year on the road, Nuga was the best player on the court. He single-handedly battled his way into OT, where the Flashes barely lost a war in Charlottesville. I’m not saying Grant Sherfield (UNR), David Roddy (CSU), Isaiah Stevens (CSU), and Orlando Robinson (Fresno State) don’t deserve their spots on the Preseason All-MWC Team, but what I am saying is I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Nuga replaces one of those guards when the awards are really handed out at the end of the season.
I mentioned that UNLV’s frontcourt was bolstered, but that wasn’t the only area where the Rebels reloaded. Hamilton had to do a lot of heavy lifting on his own last year. David Jenkins Jr (who transferred to Utah) tried his best to help, but he and Hamilton could only do so much with such limited teammates around them. Hamilton should have no such problems this season. Large in part to Justin Webster, the lights-out shooter and adroit passing combo guard who transferred in from Hawaii. If Hamilton or Nuga is having an off night, Webster can be there to pick up the pieces.
Jordan McCabe is also a name that should excite UNLV fans. He was a big-time recruit coming out of Wisconsin. So much so that West Virginia and Bob Huggins went all-in and landed the flashy point guard. McCabe was overrecruited during his time in Morgantown, but he was a part-time starter there and learned the gritty, defensive mentality that makes West Virginia a threat in the B12 year in and year out. Indicators from practice are that he has gelled well with his teammates and that McCabe runs the offense with command and fluidity. He should be the best point guard UNLV has had in a good long while.
McCabe will also have help from Marvin Coleman, who looks to bring his steady hand and great leadership back to UNLV. After Coleman was lost for the season due to injury last year, the Rebels floundered badly, to put it mildly. The staff is elated to have him back, and since Coleman is the last UNLV player to record a triple-double in the last 20 years, it’s not just to have him cheering from the bench. Coleman will play an important role for the Rebels.
Last, but certainly never least, Donovan Williams is another transfer who will definitely be a solid contributor. If you’ve been paying attention to UNLV Men’s Basketball Twitter page all offseason, I’m sure you’ve seen the Derrick Jones Jr style dunks that Williams pulls off with relative ease. The transfer from Texas had an injury-riddled season last year for Shaka Smart, but if he had been healthy, he would have played quite a few minutes for that impressive Longhorn squad. Williams is a nice piece at the small forward position, with lots of length at 6’6. You’ll see him used as a defensive stalwart and disruptor, but he’ll have some games where he flashes his (streaky) offensive abilities as well.
Ultimately this team can be a very good one. They have tremendous skill, size, and depth pretty much across the board. The number one question will be cohesion. If the team can play defense the way Kruger will demand of them, and use that to create easy offensive opportunities, the Rebels could exceed even my 4th place prediction. If, on the other hand, they’re unable to get the chemistry going, this could be another long season. Whenever you introduce so many new pieces, you can never tell which way it’s going to go until they actually take the court and play against some competition. UNLV has no shortage of that in front of them, as they will play top 10 opponents UCLA and Michigan both in November. The Rebels also don’t leave Las Vegas until December 1st (when they play at SMU), so they will have plenty of time to come together and (hopefully) make some noise against a stout out of conference schedule.
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