Disappointing Loss to Air Force Saturday Brings Surging UNLV Back Down to EarthPosted by Bennet Hayes on January 6th, 2014
Back at Thanksgiving, things weren’t looking especially bright for the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. Dave Rice’s team was just 2-3 (a record that excludes an embarrassing exhibition loss to Dixie State), and even that middling early mark may not have been representative of how quickly the team’s expectation level had deflated. Just a few weeks into the season, the Rebs appeared to be headed nowhere fast. But then, finally, things got going. Slowly at first — an easy win over Tennessee-Martin was followed by an encouraging loss at #1 Arizona (UNLV trailed by just two points with 30 seconds to go) – before things quickly accelerated, as the Rebels ripped off seven straight double-figure wins. The spurt restored much of the faith that had landed the team second in the Mountain West preseason poll, but after a puzzling, out-of-left field loss to Air Force at the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday night, doubts about the Rebels are again resurfacing.
Fair warning for anyone who peeks at Air Force’s early-season schedule: There are some scarring results on there. Losses to VMI, Jackson State, and 3-10 UC Davis (#320 in the latest Pomeroy rankings) are among the eyesores, although the increasingly salubrious Falcons did enter Saturday fresh off an upset of a solid Utah State team. Still, few expected Air Force to be especially competitive in this one (including local bookmakers, who had the Falcons listed as 14.5 point underdogs).As it turns out, the Falcons proved every bit as competitive as UNLV was disappointing. In his postgame presser, head coach Dave Rice flatly stated that “this was a very disappointing effort” multiple times. Disappointing indeed, and suddenly that post-Thanksgiving Rebels’ schedule took on a slightly less rosy tint.
While nobody had believed the Rebels dispatched any sort of murderer’s row throughout December, the actual quality of the competition was a bit lost in all the winning and, in local fashion, spread-covering: UNLV had covered nine straight (!) spreads heading into Saturday night. The best victory of the bunch came in their most recent effort at Fresno State, a team that Pomeroy rates as the 166th best outfit in the country. Five of the other six victories came against teams rated outside the top-200, and all but one of those games (a bus trip to visit what is currently the second-worst team in the country, Southern Utah) was played outside of Las Vegas. Needless to say, not exactly the stuff that at-large resumes are made of.
Still, while UNLV clearly doesn’t have it all together yet, the reality is that the 10-5 Rebels boast a roster talented enough to earn their way into the NCAA Tournament. Bryce Dejean-Jones was outstanding in defeat Saturday night (28 points, six assists); his varied offensive game rendered him oten impossible for the Falcons to defend. Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith are both former top-50 recruits nearly averaging double-doubles (Birch’s 9.9 RPG average needs to go up to make that factoid flow a little better), and the duo forms the foundation of a front line eminently capable of matching up with any high-major counterpart. Three other Rebels were consensus top-100 recruits when they left high school (not including BDJ, a former top-100 recruit in his own right): freshmen Kendall Smith and Christian Wood, and JC transfer Jelan Kendrick.
Again, Dave Rice is not filming the sequel to Hoosiers out of the Thomas & Mack this winter. On the floor, redirecting the offense to flow through Smith and Birch more often will continue to be a point of emphasis for him. He complimented Air Force on its constant double-teaming of Birch on Saturday night, and the lack of interior touches that he and Smith received led to a bunch of three-point attempts (the Rebels made just 6-of-21 attempts) for a team that shoots them neither well nor often. That inefficiency from long range, as much as anything, contributed to the disappointing result for Rice’s group.
The good news for the Rebels is that they sit in a relatively unsettled conference. San Diego State certainly looks elite in romping to a 12-1 start, but outside of the Aztecs, known quantities are hard to find. Sure, both New Mexico and Boise State were NCAA Tournament teams a season ago and look poised to retain their presence in the upper echelon of the league, but both are also beatable. Also worth noting is that road teams are already 4-5 in conference play, just a year after the top six teams in the league went a combined 43-5 on their home floors. It’s all proof that there are wins out there for the taking in this year’s Mountain West, and Saturday’s slip-up aside, the Rebels are talented enough to do some of that snatching. It’s all well and good, but Rice knows exactly what that meatless UNLV non-conference resume will also tell you: For preseason expectations to be realized, those MW wins need to start coming fast and furious for his Runnin’ Rebels.