Monday, July 31, 2017 | 10:58 a.m.
What a difference a year makes.
UNLV basketball announced its nonconference schedule for the 2017-18 season, and the slate shouldn’t be nearly as arduous as last year’s gauntlet.
The Rebels will play an exhibition game against Alaska Fairbanks at the Thomas & Mack Center on Nov. 3, and regular-season play opens on Nov. 11 with a home game against Florida A&M.
Later in the month, UNLV will take part in the MGM Resorts Main Event, a four-team tournament played over three days at T-Mobile Arena. The Rebels will play Rice on Nov. 20, then face either Ole Miss or Utah on Nov. 22.
The full nonconference schedule:
Nov. 3 — vs. Alaska Fairbanks (Exhibition)
Nov. 11 — vs. Florida A&M
Nov. 15 — vs. Prairie View A&M
Nov. 17 — vs. Eastern Washington
Nov. 20 — vs. Rice (at T-Mobile Arena)
Nov. 22 — vs. Ole Miss/Utah (at T-Mobile Arena)
Nov. 25 — vs. Southern Utah
Nov. 29 — at Northern Iowa
Dec. 2 — vs. Arizona
Dec. 5 — vs. Oral Roberts (at MGM Grand)
Dec. 9 — vs. Illinois ( at MGM Grand)
Dec. 16 — at Pacific
Dec. 20 — vs. Mississippi Valley State
Dec. 22 — vs. Northern Colorado
The strength of schedule is a big step down from last season, when UNLV played powerhouses Kansas, Duke and Oregon. The toughest opponent this season will be Arizona, as UNLV will host the probable preseason top-5 team at the Mack on Dec. 2. Beyond that, there aren’t any obvious top-25 contests on the horizon.
There are just two road games scheduled for non-conference play: at Northern Iowa on Nov. 29 and at Pacific on Dec. 16.
UNLV will play its final non-conference game on Dec. 22 against Northern Colorado. The Rebels will then have eight days off before beginning the Mountain West season with a home tilt against Boise State on Dec. 30.
Some quick takeaways from the schedule:
Perhaps a bit shell-shocked from last season, Marvin Menzies appears to have scheduled as though the Rebels are still rebuilding. The idea may have been to build the young team’s confidence early in the year, as opposed to 2016-17, when Menzies took over an inexperienced roster and had to forge ahead against the likes of Duke, Kansas and Oregon in non-conference play. That stretch destroyed the Rebels’ confidence and made it hard to bounce back for the Mountain West season.
The roster has been upgraded to the extreme since last season, however, and now there are at least nine games that could be considered “safe.” The Rebels should enter all of those contests as big favorites and wrap up the non-league portion of the schedule with at least 10 or 11 wins.
The plan may be to let the improved Rebels feast on overmatched opponents and head into conference play with their confidence soaring.
While the soft schedule will help the players build belief in themselves, it will also make it very difficult for the Rebels to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. There are few opportunities to score quality wins (Arizona for sure, maybe Utah, at Northern Iowa?), and the overwhelming number of home games will make it hard to build a decent RPI score.
That will put Menzies in a familiar position. As head coach at New Mexico State, he entered every season knowing he’d have to win the WAC tournament in order to make it to the big dance, and now UNLV is in the same spot. The Mountain West has been a one-bid league the last two years, so even if UNLV wins the regular season title, there will be no guarantees.
If Menzies wants to lead the Rebels back to the postseason in his second season at the helm, he’s going to have to win the Mountain West tournament.
UNLV is only traveling for two road games during the non-conference season, but they will get plenty of experience playing away from Thomas & Mack Center, as there are four contests scheduled on the Strip.
The Rebels will play two MGM Main Event games at T-Mobile Arena on Nov. 20 and 22, and they’ll play a pair of games at the MGM Grand Garden Arena (vs. Oral Roberts on Dec. 5, vs. Illinois on Dec. 9) when the National Finals Rodeo commandeers the Mack.
Though the Strip contests are technically neutral-court games, UNLV season-ticket holders will have access to tickets