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April 23, 2017

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5 sports predictions for the new year in Las Vegas

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Glenn Pinkerton / Las Vegas News Bureau

The Stanley Cup is delivered to MGM Grand on Monday, June 22, 2015, in Las Vegas. The 2015 NHL Awards are at nearby MGM Grand Garden Arena on Wednesday.

Want to know what’s going to happen in 2016 on the Las Vegas sports scene?

We’ve got you covered. It could be a banner-raising year for our city and its teams.

January: A pro sports franchise finally calls Las Vegas home

The Las Vegas Arena is almost ready, and each time an NHL Board of Governors meeting passes without an official expansion decision, it brings up familiar feelings of all the other times Las Vegas has been this close to getting a professional team, only to come up empty.

If it doesn’t happen by the end of January, it might be time to worry, but odds are the announcement many locals have been waiting for will come Jan. 30-31 at the NHL All-Star Game in Nashville.

The potential team already has more than 13,500 season tickets sold, and billionaire Bill Foley, the team’s prospective owner, has everything in order. He needs only the green light to begin hiring coaches and front office personnel. That hasn’t happened yet because the league wants to bring in two teams, and finding a second with a complete proposal has been tricky. And for that, Las Vegas has been made to wait ... and wait ... and wait.

February: Pick to win the Super Bowl at the current odds: Kansas City Chiefs at 25-to-1

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Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Albert Wilson, left, gets past a tackle attempt by San Diego Chargers cornerback Steve Williams while running for a touchdown Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015, during the first half of an NFL football game in Kansas City, Mo.

There’s only about a 10 percent chance the Chiefs will bring Kansas City its second professional sports championship in the past four months. But that’s a lot better than these odds imply.

Such a high payoff is offered on the Chiefs that all they need to do is win one playoff game to make this a profitable wager. They’re likely going to be favored in the first round, and a victory would enable anyone holding a 25-to-1 ticket to begin hedging — betting against the Chiefs to guarantee earnings — in the next round. Kansas City arguably has been the NFL’s best team over the past two months, winning eight straight by an average of 17.5 points per game.

Playing the futures market is almost always a losing strategy — betting on teams to win each game on the moneyline in the playoffs usually yields a higher payout — so if forced, it’s wise to take a big risk for a potentially lucrative reward.

March: Rebels go dancing

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UNLV forward Stephen Zimmerman Jr. (33) breaks free for a dunk versus Arizona State at the Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday, December 16, 2015.

The UNLV basketball team is on track to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years, and there’s no reason the Rebels shouldn’t be able to build on that and win their first outright Mountain West Conference title — well, no reason other than the fact it never has happened and the team’s lone co-regular season title occurred during the league’s debut season in 1999-2000.

The Rebels have the deepest team, the top resume and probably the best big man (Stephen Zimmerman Jr.) and overall player (Pat McCaw) in the league. None of that will matter, though, if they can’t win at Air Force or protect their home court against UNR, both problem areas in past seasons.

It has been a strong start and the Rebels likely will go dancing, but their future — and that of this coaching staff — ultimately will be determined in Mountain West play.

July: Ronda Rousey wins rematch with Holly Holm by submission

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Ronda Rousey gets ready to fight Cat Zingano in a UFC 184 mixed martial arts bantamweight title bout Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015, in Los Angeles. Rousey won after Zingano tapped out 14 seconds into the first round.

Transcendent athletes often perform their best when everyone begins to doubt them.

The majority of fight fans give Rousey a slim chance to reclaim her UFC women’s bantamweight championship belt after being dominated by Holm with a second-round knockout in Australia. That’s a mistake. There are 18 minutes in the octagon — the combined time of all of her previous fights — that indicate Rousey is one of the greatest fighters ever.

Holm fought incredibly over six minutes against Rousey but was ordinary in her first 30 minutes in the UFC cage, with two decision victories, including one that was disputed heavily against unthreatening Raquel Pennington. Rousey will have a smarter game plan in the second meeting, which is likely to come July 9 at the Las Vegas Arena during a headlining role at UFC 200.

Fall: UNLV football breaks through

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UNLV head coach Tony Sanchez runs onto the field with his players as they take on Boise State on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015, at Sam Boyd Stadium.

The UNLV football team has played in four bowl games all-time. This season, they won just three games, and they typically finish near the bottom of the Mountain West Conference standings.

Next season will be different. The Rebels will reach a bowl; they might even be a contender in the Mountain West. And that’s not a bold prediction.

Head coach Tony Sanchez, despite a 3-9 record in 2014 and ugly defeats against San Diego State and Wyoming to close his first season, got the most out of a roster loaded with players who were overmatched. UNLV was undersized on the offensive line, with two starters weighing just 260 pounds. Sanchez’s line at Bishop Gorman High School, where he won six state championships, wasn’t that small. On the defensive line, the Rebels recorded just nine sacks, or seven less than the 16 Penn State’s Carl Nassib recorded alone to lead the nation.

Still, because Sanchez got the most out of the players he inherited, the Rebels lost four games by eight points or less, including in consecutive weeks against San Jose State and Fresno State where they squandered double-digit leads.

If UNLV were more stable at the quarterback position, some of those late defeats might have been wins. Blake Decker battled injuries all season, either missing games or being knocked out midgame. Backup Kurt Palandech wasn’t a capable passer. The team didn’t have a third option.

The second year of the Sanchez regime will include a new quarterback, junior college transfer Johnny Stanton. Stanton, a former four-star high school recruit, started his career at Nebraska before leaving for Saddleback College, where, he passed for nearly 4,000 yards and 37 touchdowns this season.

And more help is on the way. The Rebels recently received letters of intent from nine junior college transfers, most of whom should be on campus for spring practice. They’ll combine with the returners, those players who have one year under their belts in Sanchez’s system, to have a winning record and reach a bowl.

All it takes is three more wins.

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