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September 23, 2017

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Ray Brewer: From the Pressbox

ray brewer:

13 questions to get you ready for the UNLV basketball season

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV players and coaches come together during a timeout versus New Mexico Highlands on Friday, Nov. 4, 2016.

UNLV Handles New Mexico Highlands

New Mexico Highlands guard Joe Anaya (34) loses the ball underneath the basket with some hard UNLV defense during their game on Friday, Nov. 4, 2016. Launch slideshow »

The Marvin Menzies UNLV basketball coaching era officially begins Friday, finally ending the offseason narrative that’s become tiresome: The Rebels return just two contributors from last season and Menzies was hired too late in the process to find quality players, meaning the program will painfully struggle. And not just this season — for years to come.

We’ve beaten this team down repeatedly before they can play a game. We love to exaggerate when it comes to our Rebels, right?

After years of preseason hype the program didn’t live up to, this season refreshingly doesn’t include projections of making a NCAA Tournament run. There’s no pressure; no expectations.

As we count down to Friday’s season opener against South Alabama, here are 13 (lucky) questions to get you ready for another season. They were asked to me by Case Keefer, my colleague at the Sun.

What’s the most intriguing reason to follow the team this season?

The unknown is compelling. Unlike any other season in recent memory, there’s no telling how this team will perform. We aren’t familiar with the players — everything from how to say their name, to what they bring to the team and how many minutes they’ll play. If the players can hold up their end of the bargain by playing hard, they’ll quickly gain the support of fans. Menzies took unheralded players at New Mexico State and won multiple league titles. Why can’t he do it here? Regardless, I’m intrigued to watch this team develop.

What constitutes a success this season?

Beating UNR at home (that’s the local in me), having a record above .500 and winning one game in the league tournament. Basically, be a better team in March than November, and lay the foundation for future success. If the Rebels can show some progress, Menzies should be able to lure in higher-caliber players on the recruiting trail.

What will Menzies bring to the team style-wise?

Players have indicated that Menzies is determined for the Rebels to play at a fast face. They say practices have featured plenty of sprinting and other cardio drills to build stamina. In two exhibition games, which mean very little, they have scored a combined 188 points. Ultimately, playing at a fast pace comes down to having the depth to do that, and the Rebels probably lack quality bench pieces to consistently play at speed. “There is another dynamic here,” Menzies told me in the offseason. “They want you to play a certain way. That style of play is important. When the name of your men’s basketball program is the Runnin’ Rebels, you can’t walk the ball up the court.”

How deep will Menzies make his rotation?

Cheickna Dembele and Dwayne Morgan are still nursing injuries to limit Menzies’ options because both are projected to be contributors. Look for a solid eight players to receive regular minutes initially, with a starting five of Tyrell Green, Christian Jones, Uche Ofoegbu, Jalen Poyser and Kris Clyburn, Clyburn and Jones played 34 minutes of one exhibition game to indicate the Rebels may be short on bodies at some spots.

Who leads the Rebels in scoring and why?

Sophomore junior college transfer Clyburn led the Rebels in field goal attempts in both exhibition games, including against Dakota Wesleyan when he made 11 of 14 field goals to finish with a game-high 22 points. At Ranger College in Texas last season, he shot 59.9 percent. He’s the player fans should be most excited about it, and rightfully so. He’s a pure scorer — everything from getting to the basket to having a capable jump shot.

Who leads the Rebels in rebounding and why?

St. John’s transfer Christian Jones, a 6-foot-7 forward, has the potential to be the best rebounder. He averaged 5.2 rebounds in 25.2 minutes per game last season at St. John’s. He’ll play more than 30 minutes per game for the Rebels and get plenty of opportunities to pad the stats.

Who’s the starting point guard at the end of the season?

It’s Jalen Poyser’s job to lose. He’s one of three returners from last season, where he showed flashes of strong play on some nights in averaging five points, two rebounds and one assist per game. The sophomore had five assists to lead the Rebels in each exhibition game, meaning he’s on the right track to becoming Menzies’ floor general the next three seasons.

Which freshman is most poised to contribute?

It’s tough to tell with freshmen, at any school. Some thrive and others need a season to develop. Troy Baxter Jr, a four-star recruit from Florida and the gem of Menzies’ initial recruiting class, seems like an ideal pick. The 6-foot-8 forward, after all, appears to have all the tools. And because he’s a top-100 recruit, he’ll get the most opportunities. But Djordjije Sljivancanin, a lanky 6-foot-10 forward from Serbia (via IMG Academy), is the most intriguing. He’s played for the Serbian and Ukrainian junior national teams and has good ball skills. Baxter should have the better season; Sljivancanin the better career. Regardless, both are good pieces moving forward.

Can UNLV pull one major upset between Duke, Oregon and Kansas?

No. All three opponents are preseason top-5 teams. I’d love to see Rebel fans storming the court at T-Mobile Arena on Dec. 10 following an upset of Duke, but that’s unlikely. These Rebels are very much a work in progress.

Will UNLV be more efficient offensively or defensively?

Easy answer: Offensively. The Rebels surrendered 80 points to Dakota Wesleyan, a NAIA school whose players should have been overmatched. Menzies was critical of the defensive effort, which likely won’t be an easy fix. It will be a problem all season, promise.

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The UNLV versus New Mexico Highlands game brings out a smaller crowd on Friday, Nov. 4, 2016.

Will the community buy in and support this new-look team?

That’s unlikely. First, with just three returners, fans aren’t familiar with the players. You can’t cheer for someone you don’t know. More important, Las Vegans only support winners. Some will show up Dec. 22 for the home game with Kansas, but most nights expect fewer than 10,000 fans. The two exhibition games were attended by a few thousand fans. That trend will continue into the regular season. If the Rebels are better than expected and win a few games, then maybe some will be curious to cheer on the scarlet and gray.

What will the Rebels’ record be at the Thomas & Mack Center?

Home games to open the season against South Alabama, UC Riverside, Cal-State Fullerton and Northern Arizona should be victories. Yes, should be victories — I said it. While the player talent has dropped off from last year, it hasn’t fallen that far. Including the T-Mobile game against Duke, the Rebels have 17 home dates. Finishing with a 10-7 record would be realistic.

Where do the Rebels ultimately finish in the Mountain West?

The experts have the Rebels in the bottom third of the league’s standings in their preseason projections. That’s a fair assessment considering they went 8-10 in Mountain West games last season. Unfortunately, claims the Rebels may be historically bad could be true.

Ray Brewer can be reached at 702-990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21

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