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Analysis: Projecting the Runnin’ Rebels in Mountain West play

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Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels guard Bryce Hamilton (13) covers Cincinnati Bearcats forward Tre Scott (13) during a game at the Thomas & Mack Center Saturday Dec. 1, 2018.

UNLV stumbled through the non-conference portion of its schedule, including two straight losses at the Diamond Head Classic last week to wrap up the slate with a 6-6 record. But while the team was inconsistent from game to game, the Rebels showed enough potential to make the upcoming Mountain West season interesting.

Let’s take a shot at predicting how the MWC schedule will unfold:

Jan. 2 vs. Colorado State (5-7, KenPom No. 233)

Jan. 5 vs. Wyoming (4-9, KenPom No. 235)

These are two bottom-tier teams in the Mountain West, and both games will be played at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV (KenPom No. 151) will be favored in both contests, and the Rebels should absolutely be 2-0 after the opening week of conference play; if they’re not, consider it a bad sign.

Overall record: 8-6. Mountain West record: 2-0.

Jan. 8 at New Mexico (5-6, KenPom No. 184)

Jan. 16 at Air Force (5-7, KenPom No. 247)

New Mexico is one of the league’s most disappointing squads so far, but even though the Lobos are just 3-4 at home, something tells me that building will still be a tough place for UNLV to win. Give the Rebels a win over Air Force and I think most fans would be happy splitting these back-to-back road games.

Overall record: 9-7. Mountain West record: 3-1.

Jan. 19 vs. San Jose State (3-9, KenPom No. 321)

Jan. 22 vs. New Mexico

At some point the Rebels are going to drop a game they shouldn’t, but it can’t be this home matchup against San Jose State. That’s an easy win for UNLV. The stumble won’t come until a few days later, when the Rebels get stretched out by New Mexico’s shooters and lose a high-scoring affair. This marks the second straight year New Mexico has swept the season series with UNLV.

Overall record: 10-8. Mountain West record: 4-2.

Jan. 26 at San Diego State (7-5, KenPom No. 121)

Jan. 29 vs. UNR (13-0, KenPom No. 8)

The schedule gets a lot harder in a hurry, as the Rebels take on the Mountain West’s two most talented teams in back-to-back games. UNLV got slaughtered at San Diego State last year (94-56), and even though SDSU is struggling, I can’t pick the Rebels to win there. And UNR is probably going undefeated in the regular season, so this looks like an 0-2 week for UNLV.

Overall record: 10-10. Mountain West record: 4-4.

Feb. 2 at Utah State (10-3, KenPom No. 48)

Feb. 6 at Boise State (5-8, KenPom No. 138)

Feb. 9 vs. Fresno State (9-3, KenPom No. 66)

The schedule doesn’t let up, with three straight against the upper-middle class of the MWC (including two on the road). UNLV has been consistently bad at Utah State in recent years, so that’s not looking promising, especially with the 3-point deficit the Rebels will likely face in that matchup. The Boise game is winnable, though UNLV hasn’t claimed a victory there since the 2011-12 season. Fresno has been rolling under first-year head coach (and former UNLV assistant) Justin Hutson. This looks like a 1-2 stretch for UNLV, although it’s probably closer to 0-3 than it is to 2-1.

Overall record: 11-12. Mountain West record: 5-6.

Feb. 12 vs. Air Force

Feb. 16 at San Jose State

Feb. 19 at Wyoming

If the Rebels have still retained their fighting spirit at this point in the season, they’ll have a chance to stack up some wins against the dregs of the league. Victories against Air Force and San Jose State should push UNLV above .500 and give them some momentum going into a tricky road game at Wyoming. The Cowboys can put four shooters on the floor together, which has been UNLV’s kryptonite under Marvin Menzies, but by this point of the season I expect the Rebels’ young guards to be contributing some 3-pointers of their own. I’ll call this one for UNLV, giving the Rebels a three-game winning streak.

Overall record: 14-12. Mountain West record: 8-6.

Feb. 23 vs. San Diego State

Feb. 27 at UNR

This will turn out to be a critical week for UNLV because if the Rebels can take one of these games, it pretty much guarantees an above-.500 record in Mountain West play. Stealing a W won’t be easy, but last year UNLV won its home game against SDSU and its road game at UNR, so it’s on the table. Given the way San Diego State has struggled so far, I could see a good home crowd giving UNLV a chance to upset the Aztecs. I can’t see UNLV winning in Reno two years in a row, so let’s call it a 1-1 week.

Overall record: 15-13. Mountain West record: 9-7.

March 2 vs. Boise State

March 9 at Colorado State

Coming off San Diego State and UNR and looking ahead to the end of the season, this Boise State game stands out as a trap situation. If the Mack is mostly empty and the crowd offers no home-court advantage, this strikes me as a low-energy game that slips away. Then with a week off to prepare for Colorado State on the road, the Rebels will bounce back and wrap the regular season with a win.

Overall record: 16-14. Mountain West record: 10-8.

It might not seem like much, but a 10-8 record in league play would be a considerable step forward in UNLV’s rebuilding process. Even though the MWC isn’t as strong as it once was, the Rebels haven’t finished above .500 since the 2013-14 season. Menzies could sell that modest progress as a sign of better things to come for a program that should return most of its core players in 2019-20.

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

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