Rebels ready for first true test against tough, experienced Utah

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Steve Marcus

UNLV’s Jovan Mooring (30) passes in a game against the Rice Owls during the MGM International Main Event basketball tournament at T-Mobile Monday, Nov. 20, 2017.

The first few weeks of the 2017-18 season have been fun for UNLV basketball. Marvin Menzies promised a better product and more wins in his second year on the job, and after importing a top recruiting class, the team is living up to those expectations.

The Rebels have looked unstoppable so far, racking up a 4-0 record and earning style points in the process due to an average margin of victory of 32.3 points.

And yet … there is still doubt lingering over the team. There is still something to prove. The Rebels’ first four opponents were of the “tomato can” variety — the best of the bunch was Eastern Washington, a team with a 2-3 record and a KenPom.com rating of No. 231 (out of 351 teams). Rice is ranked roughly 50 spots below that, while Florida A&M and Prairie View A&M are languishing in the 300s.

To be fair, UNLV took care of business and completely dominated those four opponents. There were no scares, no slip-ups and no signs that the Rebels were anything but ready for a step up in competition.

Utah will represent that step. After defeating Ole Miss on the other side of the bracket in the MGM Main Event, the Utes are now No. 43 in KenPom rating and looking like a team that will make a serious push for an NCAA tournament berth at the end of the season.

If UNLV is for real, Wednesday’s meeting with Utah in the Main Event championship game (9:30 p.m., ESPN2) at T-Mobile Arena is the first opportunity to prove it.

After defeating Rice on Monday, Menzies was asked if he was looking forward to the challenge of pitting his team against a stronger opponent.

“I feel comfortable that we’ll give great effort,” Menzies said. “I feel comfortable that we’ll play tough basketball. We’ll play with pride. And so I am eagerly anticipating [Utah] because I think it will be good for our overall growth.”

UNLV’s starting five should definitely be able to hang with Utah. Through four games, the Rebels’ starting lineup of Jordan Johnson, Jovan Mooring, Kris Clyburn, Shakur Juiston and Brandon McCoy has been dominant in every way, outscoring opponents 101-38 over a span of 35 minutes. That fivesome has shot 59.4 percent from the floor while holding opponent to a ridiculous 26.8 percent.

Utah appears to match up with UNLV far better than any of the Rebels' previous opponents — on paper, anyway. Senior forwards David Collette and Tyler Rawson have respectable size (6-foot-8 and 6-foot-9, respectively), and while they’re not the most athletic frontcourt, they are experienced and tough and will make McCoy and Juiston work hard for everything they get. In the backcourt, junior guard Sedrick Barefield is an aggressive penetrator (13.0 points per game), and senior guard Justin Bibbins has been hot from 3-point range (43.8 3FG%).

Collette and McCoy will be an individual matchup to watch. McCoy has been better than advertised through four games, averaging 20.0 points and 11.8 rebounds, but Collette has been Utah’s top defender, allowing just 0.25 points per possession. According to Synergy Sports data, opponents have tried to post up Collette five times this season, and none of those plays resulted in any points.

After McCoy ripped through Rice with a line of 23 points and 10 rebounds, he said he wasn’t looking at the Utah game any differently.

“Honestly, we’re not really focusing on the competition,” McCoy said. “We’re just trying to get better every day.”

Whether the Rebels want to admit it, their first test is here. They seem ready.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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