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UNLV basketball:

Rebels looking to prove people wrong after being picked 8th in MW poll

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Steve Marcus

Uche Ofoegbu (2) is shown during UNLV basketball practice at Mendenhall Center on the UNLV campus Monday, August 1, 2016. The Rebels are practicing in preparation for a tournament later this month in the Bahamas.

A year ago, the Rebels felt so slighted by a fourth-place projected Mountain West finish that then-assistant coach Stacey Augmon tweeted, “Trust me this is a joke.” Now Augmon is coaching with the Milwaukee Bucks, the other three coaches are with different college programs and UNLV enters the season picked to finish eighth, its lowest projection in the league’s 17-year history.

“I’ve seen the poll,” senior guard Uche Ofoegbu said during Tuesday’s Mountain West media day at the Renaissance Las Vegas. “We’re just not going to pay attention to it and take it a day at a time and get better and try to prove people wrong. I don’t see us being last. I don’t know where we’re going to finish.”

At this point, the only thing most people know about the Rebels is that they don’t know anything about them. First-year coach Marvin Menzies has a new coaching staff and 10 new scholarship players on the roster, and even though the Rebels played three exhibition games in the Bahamas two months ago, injuries and eligibility situations limited the roster, so there hasn’t been even a single practice with everyone available.

“It’s still a mystery, it’s up in the air,” Ofoegbu said.

Some of that mystery might remain until the opening exhibition game on Tuesday, Nov. 1, against Dakota Wesleyan, because there are currently no plans for a preseason scrimmage. Next week’s presidential debate limits the Rebels’ access to the Thomas & Mack Center and the court won’t go down for the first time until Halloween, though Menzies didn’t rule out putting some kind of event together.

“It might be kind of a last-second deal,” Menzies said.

It’s been that kind of an offseason for the Rebels. Menzies has had to do a lot of things on the fly, including building his staff and roster, and as the season approaches he feels good about how things have ended up.

“When I took over, the state of the union was bleak as far as the roster was concerned,” Menzies said. “… I know how good they’re going to be, I don’t know how long it’s going to take to get there.”

Most are expecting a rebuilding year for UNLV, hence the eighth-place projection. Factor in a nonconference schedule that includes Kansas at home, Duke at T-Mobile Arena and Oregon in Portland, and it’s easy to see how this could go very poorly, but the beauty of the mystery box is that you really don’t know what’s in there.

The Rebels are getting healthier, with guard Jovan Mooring and forward Dwayne Morgan working their way back into practice and forward Cheickna Dembele still a few weeks away, and this team at full strength would look markedly different than the one that played in the Bahamas. That could be part of the motivational message Menzies would deliver to the team alongside the bulletin-board material of being picked eighth.

“You take what you’re given and you use it to your advantage to create a competitive advantage,” Menzies said.

Menzies was given a difficult rebuilding situation and he’s going about it with a smile. Sure, this season could be an uphill battle, but it’s mostly about laying the overall foundation while still believing that you’re going to surprise some people sooner than later.

“I embrace the opportunity to try to silence the naysayers,” Menzies said. “I embrace the opportunity to engage the loyal Rebel fans who are going to love you do or die because you’re doing it the right way.”

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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