Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013 | 11:10 p.m.
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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.