UNLV basketball:

Rebels prepare for new challenges after wrapping up nonconference season

Anthony Bennett dominated Cal State Bakersfield for a career-high 28 points in UNLV’s 84-63 victory. The Rebels travel to New Mexico on Wednesday

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV forward Anthony Bennett dunks on Cal State Bakersfield during their game Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

UNLV vs. Cal State Bakersfield 2013

UNLV forward Anthony Bennett sails in for a dunk against Cal State Bakersfield during their game Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013, at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV won the game 84-63. Launch slideshow »

The Rebels don’t know if they’re ready for Mountain West play, particularly the brutal opening stretch that sends them to New Mexico, San Diego State and Colorado State in three of their first four games.

They couldn’t tell you how those games would go before the nonconference finale Saturday night, and there was nothing definitive the Rebels (13-2) could learn in an 84-63 victory against Cal State Bakersfield (6-12) that would bring them closer to any answers. The league is as good as it’s ever been, and with arguably the three toughest games all coming so early, it could be a rough start for UNLV.

“We’ve made progress but we understand the greatest challenge for us is coming,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said, “and it starts on Wednesday at New Mexico.”

What the Rebels did take away from this victory was a step in the right direction for sophomore Bryce Dejean-Jones, who had 12 points and six assists with no turnovers, and the confirmation that there’s little freshman Anthony Bennett can’t do on offense.

Bennett hit three 3-pointers in the opening minutes and scored the Rebels’ first 11 points. When the Roadrunners challenged that shot, he beat them off the dribble for a pull-up jumper and a couple of dunks. Bennett had 21 first-half points and finished with a career high 28 while also grabbing 10 rebounds.

“I just kept shooting and the shots were falling so I kept it rolling,” Bennett said.

Said Dejean-Jones, “When a guy hits three 3s in a row and is dunking all over the place, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t (pass to him). We keep feeding him and he keeps producing.”

Bennett and Dejean-Jones can talk about what they did to Bakersfield and what they would like to do when the Rebels begin Mountain West play Wednesday at New Mexico (13-2). What they can’t do is tell you what it’s like to play a conference game in Albuquerque. Neither could Rebels starters Katin Reinhardt and Khem Birch, who both struggled Saturday with a combined 3-for-12 shooting and seven turnovers.

League play is going to be a new experience for a bulk of UNLV’s key contributors, and it comes against what could be the greatest collection of teams the Mountain West has ever seen.

Consider: The seven returning league members are a combined 82-14, not including non-Division I victories, and the top six teams are all at least 12-2. The conference ranks second in the country in RPI behind the Big Ten.

“This should be the most competitive conference race in the history of the Mountain West,” Rice said.

The Rebels’ veterans have said league play isn’t something they can explain to newcomers. That hasn’t stopped them from trying, though.

“They said conference is hard in general,” Bennett said. “Even the teams you wouldn’t notice, like Air Force, are hard places to play.”

UNLV doesn’t know whether it will get Mike Moser back for Wednesday’s game. The junior forward said Friday he expects to play but couldn’t guarantee anything because he doesn’t know how his injured elbow will continue to respond to treatment.

If he were available for more than spot minutes, as he performed at North Carolina, it would be the first time all season Rice would have his full roster at his disposal. If he’s not, it’s another game that postpones the Rebels’ chances of finding out exactly how their pieces will work together.

That process has already been delayed through the entire nonconference season, a slate of games that’s lacking a marquee victory. The Rebels’ best win is either at Cal or home against Iowa State, neither of which stacks up to the best victory from teams like New Mexico, Wyoming or even Boise State.

UNLV’s loss to Oregon cost it a game against Cincinnati, which was ranked No. 14 before a loss Saturday. That could have been a good measuring stick considering the Lobos went to Cincinnati in December and handed the Bearcats their first loss of the season.

Even if the Rebels had that game on their resume, it’s impossible to predict how this first trip or the rest of the league play will go. UNLV is about to drop a lot of new faces into some very hostile environments against teams heavy on experience.

So, no. No one can say how the Mountain West season will play out for the Rebels or anyone else for that matter. But it should be a lot of fun to find out.

And while things may change once he steps on the court, Bennett is looking to attack New Mexico the same way he has worked against every other opponent this year.

“I’m going at it like it’s another basketball game,” Bennett said. “That’s what I do.”

But it’s the first time he’ll do it in a Mountain West game, and in this league this year, anything can happen.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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  1. Bennett will have probably 12 pts and 7 rbs at New Mexico. Who's going to step up? NO ONE! Katin is still bad on defense, our bigs fumble the ball like no tmr and Marshall still with questionable drives to the basket. Over it. 65-45 UNM

  2. Good win by the Rebels. Time to finalize the rotation.

  3. Btw, UNLV doesn't have a remotely above average Resume win.....and with a 1-3 start in conference play puts them handed lay on the bubble. They'll be on it all season long. 4-6 losses on the road and 1-2 at home puts UNLV on a solid bubble bursting scenario. My guess UNLV ends MWC play 9-7, 21-9 and loses in the championship game against Boise or SDSU. Selection Sunday will be nerve racking.

  4. Good win with a larger margin than when Bakersfield lost at Colorado, Wyoming, and San Diego State. Saw some sloppy play indicative of young players in a young rotation, but keep working, peak in March, and have fun. Also: ignore early morning rants from Thailand. Rebels!

  5. I didn't realize there are American fortune tellers in Thailand!

  6. If the Rebels were playing with blue basketballs AmericanMissionaryInThailand would be banging his head against the wall. That might explain his comments.

  7. Thank goodness the AWFUL Non-Conference home slate is finally over. That being said it's finally time the Rebels win a Regular season MWC conference championship.

  8. @AmericanInThailand (James Snipes) "Btw, UNLV doesn't have a remotely above average Resume win (what do you consider Iowa State, Hawaii, UTEP, and California, then?) All four .....and with a 1-3 start in conference play puts them handed lay on the bubble. (no, that will put them in the 8-9 game) They'll be on it all season long. 4-6 losses on the road (every team in the MW will lose 4-5 games on the road, it is a tough road league) and 1-2 at home (doubt UNLV will lose at home) puts UNLV on a solid bubble bursting scenario. My guess UNLV ends MWC play 9-7 (anyone who gets above.500 in a 5 or 6 bid league is in), 21-9 (UNLV plays 31 games, not 30) and loses in the championship game against Boise or SDSU (anyone who makes the MWC finals is in unless you are Fresno or AFS) Selection Sunday will be nerve racking. (yes, but to determine what seed)"

    I'm sorry, but this is wrong on almost all counterparts. The last three years UNV has finished 11-5 in conference play. This teams has not peaked yet. 11-5 sounds about right (might be enough to win the MW title), with a 25-9 or 26-9 overall mark (go to the first or second round of the NCAA's).

  9. It's amazing how the bashers on here forget that the Rebels are essentially starting four freshman. Dejean-Jones and Birch are essentially freshmen because they have less than 30 games of experience. Reinhardt and Bennett only have 15 games of experience.

    With a team who is as young and works as hard as the Rebels, the only direction they can go is up.

  10. Four freshman, four more excuses. Kentucky had essentially 4-6 freshman last year and dominated the entire country. On Thursday morning, I would like to see the same fools on these boards right now stating the rebels will be "just fine." There will be rants of Rice needs to be fired and far more ridiculous garbage going on. As soon as you guys accept that UNLV is mediocre, the more you can move not next year. A lot of experience players, birch, and moser will be back. That will be huge for UNLV. This year is just for getting Anthony Bennett as hi as possible on the draft board. That's all.

  11. @AmericanInThailand (James Snipes) - There are exceptions to every rule.

  12. The notion that we have a young team and starting 4 "Freshman" is hilarious....because all good players bolt for the NBA after their Freshman year or soon after, 99% of all teams are young. As pointed out above, Kentucky kicked major @$$ with Freshman, so that's not an excuse. We have a tough conference, but I'm not sure we're improving. Compared to the same time last year and the year before, we're already behind. We'll see how good this coaching staff really is.

  13. Let the butt whoopins begin, UNLV fans are in for a big shock if they think that the rebels can compete in the mountain west conference. New Mexico and SDSU will school the rebels like the freshmen they are. So between having inexperienced freshmen and a coach who is in over his head let the butt whoopins begin.

  14. @Sinatra711 - Just over 50% of UNLV's minutes have gone to freshmen or redshirt sophomores. So, I have proven your notion factually wrong.

    So, Jimmer Fredette wasn't a good player? He won the Naismith Award as a senior at BYU. Wrong again Sinatra.

    Kentucky started three freshmen and two sophomores. You conveniently forgot to mention that they had Darius Miller, a senior who provided the team with leadership.

    Katin Reinhardt improving on defense, Bryce Dejean Jones with six assists and zero turnovers, and you say the team isn't improving?

    Of course the team is behind from last year. Mike Moser was the only key newcomer. The roster had continuity from the year before. They also had three seniors in the starting lineup.

    I don't even know why I comment on here sometimes. Most of you on here just rant and say the Rebels and Dave Rice suck without providing any facts to back up your assertions.

  15. phillips--good point about last year's team having an easier go of it, only having to integrate one new player. that's an overlooked point when comparisons are made between the two. however, i think we do have to prepare ourselves for maybe more difficulties than we probably expected during the offseason. our recruiting class led many of us (myself included) to believe that we were clearly the dominant team in the MWC. i don't know that we're looking like that now. it is possible to criticize rice without calling for his firing, and he's earned his share of second-guessing. yes it's hard getting all these newcomers and freshmen acclimated, but two things stand out to me: first, there's no halfcourt offense to speak of. one big comes and sets a high screen on the ball and rolls off, and three guys stand around watching. maybe rice has actually given them an offense to run and they just refuse. why is that? second, his defense doesn't cause turnovers. how are we supposed to run--which we are still far more inept at than seemingly anybody wants to admit--if we aren't getting the ball back? now that birch is playing, we have at least two shotblockers in the paint; why can't we overplay more on D?

    i still think our talent alone will take us a ways, but i'm not expecting all that much come tournament time. i hope i'll be pleasantly surprised.

  16. DON'T FEED THE TROLLS!!

    When the Rebels don't lose by 20, he'll come up with some other ridiculous prediction.

  17. @adrock - I have disagreed with some of Rice's calls as well. But, for the people to say he needs to be fired is ridiculous.

    Also, I agree with you about not fast breaking very well. They do create turnovers, but they don't have somebody to lead the break. That will come when Reinhardt develops with playmaking skills and when they have a true point guard. As good as Marshall is, he doesn't create well for others. It also hurts that Moser isn't out there. He's the only guy who can get a rebound and lead a fast break effectively.

    Finally, the Rebels are doing pretty well defensively. They're in the top 30 in field goal percentage. The rebounding could be better, and I think it will be a strength with Moser, Bennett, and Birch on the floor.

    Rice is only in his second year as coach, and next year's team will be even better than this year's team. The core guys will have game experience, and the key newcomers have game experience, particularly Roscoe Smith. The long-term prognosis for this program is excellent.

  18. Conference play is going to be a lot of fun this year. I cant wait to see UNLV go to the Pit, Viejas, Moby, Laramie, etc. and I can't wait for an energized, packed Mack at every home game coming up. I'm not going to try to predict any successes or failures or NCAA tournament seeding. The only thing I expect is have a great time cheering for Justin's stifling defence, some Birch swats, some Katin rainbow threes, and of course some AB, posterizing, demoralizing, beastly dunks. Enjoy the ride, everyone, whatever it turns out to be.