With senior backcourt in place, UNLV setting sights on return to NCAA tournament

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L.E. Baskow

Jovan Mooring (30) runs drills with teammates during the UNLV basketball team’s first practice at the Mendenhall Center on Saturday, September 30, 2017. .

The Rebel Room

Two-way action

UNLV football opens Mountain West Conference play Saturday against San Jose State on the same day the basketball team starts practice. Mike Grimala, Ray Brewer and Case Keefer discuss what to watch on both the field and the court.

There were times last season when Jovan Mooring must have felt like the only Runnin’ Rebel on the floor.

Then a junior in his first year at the Division I level, Mooring was thrust into the point guard role midway through the season and asked to create offense, often out of thin air. At the end of the year, he was the only UNLV player to average at least 12 points per game. He was also the only player to make 50 3-pointers, hand out 100 assists or register a 30-point game.

He won’t be quite so lonely this time around.

On Saturday, before UNLV’s first official practice of the season, Mooring sounded like a guy who is more than ready to trade big stats for victories. And with a talented group of newcomers set to help turn the Rebels into Mountain West contenders, it looks like Mooring is going to get his wish.

Mooring, who flashed a big smile throughout his pre-practice meeting with the media, seemed downright giddy by the thought.

“There’s a lot of talent,” Mooring said. “It’s probably the most talented team I’ve ever been a part of. I think that’s where the excitement comes from.”

The 2017-18 Rebels have been upgraded in nearly every way. Five-star freshman Brandon McCoy will man the middle, while Shakur Juiston, the reigning junior college national player of the year, will flank him at power forward. Four-star recruit Amauri Hardy is expected to bring sizzle and scoring punch to the guard rotation, and freshman big man Mbacke Diong possesses a world of potential.

The biggest impact may come from the smallest addition, however. Senior Jordan Johnson sat out last year after transferring from Milwaukee, but he’ll head into this season as UNLV’s starting point guard. At 5-foot-9, he doesn’t fill up a room like the massive McCoy or the muscular Juiston, but everyone seems to agree he’ll be the engine that powers the Rebels this year.

Johnson was second in the nation in assists as a junior at Milwaukee in 2015-16 (8.1 per game), and his playmaking ability will allow Mooring to shift to shooting guard and focus more on his specialty: getting buckets.

Mooring was UNLV's top offensive option last season, and while he carried the offense for long stretches with his outside shooting and prowess for getting to the free-throw line, he finished the year shooting just 37.4 percent from the field. Now, with a true point guard like Johnson setting him up with open shots, Mooring should see his efficiency improve.

After watching from the bench last year, Johnson believes his style of play will mesh with Mooring’s to get the best out of both of them.

“I saw Jojo [last year], and he was out there trying to make plays, but he’s a scorer first,” Johnson said. “We’re going to play way harder [this year], we’re going to play faster, and it’s going to be a show.”

Coach Marvin Menzies doesn’t just want Johnson and Mooring to make each other better—he wants the senior guards to use their combined basketball knowledge and leadership to make the entire team better.

“You obviously have really, really good experience and talent from those guys,” Menzies said. “So it’s their job, one of their directives in their job descriptions is to take all those underclassmen and get them better and hold them accountable. That’s an area where both of them have to own that…If they do that, I think it will work out well for us.”

Johnson is ready to live up to his end. Though he possesses a naturally shy personality, he’s embracing his role as a leader on and off the court.

“Yes, I am the leader,” he said. “These guys want me to lead them in the right direction and I’m going to do that the best I can.”

If the senior backcourt comes together and flourishes, it should trickle down to the rest of the team and lead to a season to remember for UNLV. Mooring isn’t shy about the expectations he’s placing on the team.

“Get to the NCAA tournament,” he said. “All of us just have to be on the same page, and just continue to grow together. Like I said, we have a lot of talent, but talent isn’t the only thing that goes into the game. I think as long as we continue to gel and become more of a team, we’ll get there.”

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

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