Friday, Oct. 15, 2010 | 2:15 a.m.
A rough off-season is now officially in the rear-view mirror for the UNLV basketball program, as the 2010-11 season kicks off on Friday night with the annual FirstLook event at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The public's first chance to see the Rebels in action gets under way at 7 p.m., and admission is free.
Despite everything that's happened in the past few months — from the drama with Tre'Von Willis to the sudden absences of Matt Shaw and Kendall Wallace — the outside expectations for the Rebels are higher than they have been at any point in coach Lon Kruger's tenure.
Here, now, are three key talking points as the season gets under way:
1) Picking up the long-range slack
Call it quirky, but UNLV's steak of consecutive games with a 3-pointer made means plenty to a lot of people in and around the program. For the record, it now stands at 772, and the Rebels have hit one in every game they've played since the 3-point line was introduced at the start of the 1986-87 season.
Last season, the Rebels thrived by hitting them in bunches.
En route to going 25-9 and appearing in the NCAA tournament for the third time in four years, UNLV averaged 6.8 per game. The long ball probably was the biggest reason the Rebels won a few of those games.
Now, the biggest hurdle Lon Kruger's club has to clear is figuring out how to keep that weapon alive.
Last season, Kendall Wallace led the team in 3-pointers (61) as a junior, while Matt Shaw was its leader in 3-point field goal percentage (45.0).
Both were set to enjoy strong senior seasons but neither will.
Shaw drew a one-year suspension from the NCAA after failing a drug test in March before the NCAA tourney, while Wallace suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last month during a pick-up game. Having already used his redshirt year, Shaw's UNLV career is done, while Wallace will be back on the floor in 2011-12.
That trio combined for 123 of the team's threes a year ago — or 53.2 percent. Also, sophomore Justin Hawkins, who was 8-of-29 last season from deep as a reserve, figures to eat up some of what would have been Wallace's minutes.
The big jump that needs to be made, though, is in terms of efficiency. Willis shot just 29.5 percent from deep, while Stanback checked in at 30.9. Bellfield was a bit stronger at 37.2.
2) The big unknown
UNLV's glaring weakness last season turned out to be the lack of a dominant presence in the paint.
It's been a consistent theme since the graduation of Joel Anthony following the 2006-07 season, and there are three candidates to try to fill the void.
Leading in the experience department is junior Brice Massamba, who continued to shed weight this summer. Last year, dropping some baby fat made him lighter on his feet and helped bring his offensive game along.
He beefed up his numbers from his freshman year a bit, averaging 4.6 points and 2.4 rebounds a game while only averaging a shade under 14 minutes a night. The next logical step would be for the Findlay Prep product to become a consistently reliable force both in terms of scoring and rebounding. He's had a tendency to disappear for stretches in his first two seasons.
The 6-foot-11 Lopez has a unique blend of skills that make him equally dangerous in the paint as he is away from it. The key for Lopez, though, is that after a year with strength & conditioning coach Jason Kabo, his body has finally filled out. Now, what remains to be seen, is how long it takes him to adjust to the college game.
Thomas saw limited minutes in his one year at KU, but at 6-foot-8 and 245, he has a body that can do some damage against the front courts of the Mountain West Conference. Though he, like Lopez, will likely take a few games to get into the flow, as it's been a while since he played in a meaningful game.
3) Bold prediction: This year's break-out player will be ...
Sophomore guard Anthony Marshall. It makes the most sense.
It's easy to forget just how big of a recruit Marshall was two years ago coming out of Mojave High, and a handful of coming-of-age performances down the stretch last season showed just why so many top-flight schools were after him.
At the end of the 2009-10 campaign, the Rebels were without do-it-all swingman Derrick Jasper, while starting point guard Oscar Bellfield was hobbled after bruising his knee on Feb. 6 against BYU.
In the season's final 12 games, the 6-foot-3 Marshall averaged 6.9 points and 5.5 boards while helping fill both of their roles. The pinnacle of that run came in the Mountain West Conference tourney quarterfinals against Utah, where he had 13 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, two steals and just one turnover in 34 minutes.
Here's what we know about Marshall based on last season alone:
• He can jump out of the gym, making him both valuable on the boards and capable of a momentum-changing dunk at any time.
• With a wingspan of almost seven feet, combined with great lateral quickness, Marshall can be a terror on the defensive end.
• Above all, he's a hard worker, a bright kid and a great teammate.
What's tough to forget from last year, though, are the shooting woes.
After struggling from 3-point range for much of the year (he finished just 1-of-23 for the season), he didn't attempt one in the final 12 games. At the same time, he became hesitant to pull the trigger on mid-range jumpers.
Confidence will be key. As confident as Marshall is that he can score from any angle on drives to the bucket, he needs to be the same way with his jumper. He's made no secret this summer — visible to all via Twitter and Facebook — that working on his shot has been a priority.
His assist-to-turnover ratio wasn't great as a freshman, but Marshall was also bringing the ball up the floor much more than he probably will be this season and beyond.
If the shot made some strides, he will be well on his way to being the star that the UNLV coaching staff thinks he can become.
Other FirstLook notes ...
• Doors open to the public at 6:15 p.m. The night's events will be capped by an intrasquad scrimmage.
• This will be the first chance for the public to see UCLA transfer Mike Moser, who must sit out this season per NCAA rules. He will be able to play in the 2011-12 season and will have three seasons of eligibility remaining.
• It was expected that St. John Bosco (Calif.) High guard Cezar Guerrero would be in attendance on Friday night as part of an official visit to UNLV, but that is no longer the case. The point guard ranked as the No. 61 overall prospect in the 2011 class will instead be announcing his college choice on Friday afternoon. He most likely will be going elsewhere.
• One of UNLV's other top targets for a point guard in the 2011 class — Woodland Hills Taft (Calif.) High's Spencer Dinwiddie — was originally going to visit campus this weekend, but he has pushed the trip back two weeks so that his whole family can join him. Dinwiddie, who was the MVP of the adidas Super 64 in Las Vegas back in July, is expected to choose between Colorado, Harvard, Oregon and UNLV. He will instead be visiting Colorado this weekend.
• Several prospects from Las Vegas hoops powerhouses Bishop Gorman and Findlay Prep are expected to be in attendance, including Gorman junior swingman Rosco Allen, who Rivals.com ranks as the No. 23 prospect nationally in the 2012 class, and Findlay sophomore point guard Nigel Williams-Goss. Another intriguing local expected to attend is Durango High freshman guard Paris Estrada.