Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012 | 2:05 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun reporter Taylor Bern and Ray Brewer talk about the UNLV basketball team at the halfway point of their season. At 16-2 overall, the No. 12 ranked Rebels have exceeded expectations. But, can they keep it going?
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With the UNLV basketball team entering the second half of its remarkable season ranked No. 12, junior guard Anthony Marshall is direct.
“We feel like not even the sky’s the limit,” he said. “We feel like we have unlimited potential.”
There’s a lot of that optimism floating around Las Vegas these days, and the Rebels have earned it. At 16-2, UNLV began its eight-day midseason layoff tied for the most victories in the country.
Based on their play to this point and the remaining schedule, doubling that win total isn’t out of the question. It certainly won’t be easy, though. The league is known for tough home-court environments, and every team boasts more than a .500 record.
The Rebels will not only have to continue to rely on their strengths but also improve on weaknesses that led to two defeats and a few more close calls.
First, their strengths:
• Forcing the tempo: When coach Dave Rice took over this offseason, he promised to bring back the style that he played with as a role player on coach Jerry Tarkanian’s back-to-back Final Four teams in the early ’90s. True to form, UNLV has put itself on the national stage with a fast-break pace that took down then-No. 1 North Carolina on Nov. 26 and helped it achieve its highest ranking since 1993.
The Rebels rank 11th in the nation in points per game (81.3) and fifth in assists (18.8).
“The last couple of years, we’ve been a ballclub that prides itself on defense,” Marshall said. “With him bringing in defensive-minded assistants, that didn’t really change, but you bring in coach Rice, who’s an offensive guy, and you turn it up at both ends.
“You defend like crazy and then sprint it up court as fast as you can.”
Marshall and senior guard Oscar Bellfield are the primary triggermen on the Rebels’ many fast-breaks. Senior small forward Chace Stanback and sophomore forward Mike Moser are the biggest beneficiaries. Stanback leads the team with 14.8 points per game.
Moser, who’s averaging 14.2 points and a team-leading 11.1 rebounds, said fast-paced attacks have become second nature for the Rebels, and they’re only getting better at it.
“Offensively, I think our transition improved to where teams really can’t handle us when we get in push mode,” Moser said.
• Balance: The opponents’ scouting reports, especially the second games against conference teams, will be focused on slowing down the game and taking away Moser and Stanback. And that’s where UNLV’s depth kicks in.
Even if those two are kept in check, Marshall showed that he’s capable of taking over a game, as he did against Hawaii.
There’s also Bellfield and junior guard Justin Hawkins, who each average just less than 10 points per game, and sophomore forward Carlos Lopez, who is shooting 74 percent from the floor in a limited role.
A possible downside to that balance could be that there’s not one guy who knows he’s taking the shot with the game on the line. But Andy Glockner, who covers college basketball for SI.com, doesn’t see that as a big issue.
“I think UNLV will feel pretty comfortable at the end of the year,” Glockner said. “They’ve been tested enough in their schedule and they will be comfortable enough in the system, sort of the distribution of shots, that I’m not that concerned about that type of thing.”
• Confidence: The postgame scene after a 62-51 loss at Wisconsin on Dec. 10 was downright grim. Just more than a month later, that day barely seems real.
Whatever happened in the days after that defeat in Madison has altered the course of the season, putting conference title expectations squarely on a first-year coach and his super-athletic team. And they’re completely comfortable with it.
“We feel like we’re good enough to carry that title, and we want to be No. 1 at the end of the season, so why not start (now)?” Moser said.
Those are the three keys to UNLV’s success thus far. To fulfill their newfound expectations the rest of the way, the Rebels must improve in three key areas:
• Perimeter defense: In two losses this season, the Rebels allowed opponents to have career games.
Guards Joe Ragland of Wichita State and Ben Brust of Wisconsin combined to shoot 15-of-16 behind the three-point line. That, obviously, is difficult to overcome. That’s why perimeter defense — specifically challenging shots and limiting dribble-drives — is so important the rest of the way.
The Rebels have already gotten better at it, a key to their current win streak.
“Our most improvement probably came from team defense, probably in the past month,” Moser said. “We were a team that was getting beat by the three-point line.”
A few lapses aside, the Rebels now play good enough defense that they won’t get beat solely on 3-pointers.
Hawkins is the team’s biggest asset for perimeter defense. He’s the Rebels’ best on-ball defender, and his constant pressure forces mistakes that his teammates capitalize on.
• Show up with energy: Lackluster starts — especially against Wichita State, Wisconsin and Hawaii — will be the most vexing problem facing the Rebels for the rest of the season — mostly because there’s no tangible way to fix it.
Depth is one of the team’s biggest assets, but if the majority of those players lack the requisite hustle to execute the Rebels’ up-tempo style, it doesn’t do them much good.
Sticking to a routine is a good place to start.
Rice discovered that his team was better served going through its regular game-day routine — specifically getting in a shoot around — than opting for extra sleep, especially on the road.
Beyond that the onus is on the players to take every opponent seriously and show up ready to go. They all say the right things, but their actions will cast the ultimate vote.
Still, a few slow starts haven’t done much to quell expectations for the rest of the season.
As of Tuesday, the Rebels were slotted at No. 3 (ESPN.com and SI.com) and No. 5 (CBSSports.com) in NCAA Tournament bracket projections. Glockner, who puts together the brackets for SI.com, said a strong showing in the Mountain West will keep them right in that range.
“With the vacuum this year under the top four to six teams, I think something like a three-seed is very realistic for UNLV,” Glockner said.
• Don’t get complacent: One of the toughest things for the Rebels to overcome the rest of the season may be the praise heaped on them.
The spoils of success, especially when they come as rapidly as they have for UNLV, have a way of corrupting the values and traits that allowed teams to be good in the first place.
So far there haven’t been any indications that the players are taking anything for granted, but the Rebels could be ranked in the top 10 by mid-January, and that leaves a lot of season left to handle the spotlight.
Rebels fans won’t have to wait long to see if UNLV is ready to handle the expectations. Conference play opens Saturday afternoon at No. 22 San Diego State, one of the most difficult places to play in the Mountain West.
Will the Rebels play hard from the beginning of the game? Can they continue to guard the perimeter? Has Rice really brought back the glory years in less than one season?
It’s almost time to start the second half, and Rice is ready to go.
“We finished our nonconference season proud of where we are but not content by any stretch,” Rice said. “We’ve done something that’s really good, and we have a chance to do something that’s great.
“And it starts Saturday.”