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November 15, 2018

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Seven reasons the Runnin’ Rebels will be better this season

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Steve Marcus

UNLV holds the first basketball practice of the 2018-19 season at Mendenhall Center Friday, Sept. 28, 2018.

A bunch of question marks surround the Runnin' Rebels heading into the 2018-19 season. Concerns include, but are not limited to, outside shooting, ball handling and a soft schedule that will require UNLV to win nearly every nonconference game to have any dream of playing in the postseason.

But in the spirit of preseason, when hope springs eternal, here are seven reasons why UNLV basketball should improve on its 20-13 record from a season ago.

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UNLV Rebels forward Cheikh Mbacke Diong (34) rejects a shot attempt by Utah State Aggies guard Diogo Brito (24) during their game at the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018.

1. Better defense in the paint

If there was one aspect of the 2017-18 Rebels that doomed them to mediocrity, it was their interior defense. Opponents had no problem scoring in the paint, and skilled teams such as UNR turned their games against UNLV into layup lines.

As harsh as it might sound, this should be a case of addition by subtraction. Brandon McCoy was a great scorer at the center position as a freshman, but his defense was purely theoretical. As Mountain West Conference teams saw more of McCoy, the scouting reports became obvious: Attack the Rebels' big man in space and score at will.

Those easy baskets should be less frequent this season, with sophomore Cheikh Mbacke Diong and junior Cheickna Dembele both capable of defending the rim at a high level.

2. More minutes for Diong

Speaking of Diong, this could be a breakout campaign for the 6-foot-11 Senegal native. His production was modest as a freshman (2.1 points, 2.6 rebounds in 9.5 minutes per game), but his potential was easy to see, especially on the defensive end.

Diong was UNLV’s biggest difference-maker on defense, as he registered a block rate of 6.8 percent and a team-best defensive rating of 97.3. There is a good chance the long, agile center could emerge as one of the top rim protectors in the Mountain West this season.

Offensively, Diong is a little further behind, but he’s athletic enough to run the floor and finish above the rim. If he can stay on the court — he averaged a team-high 8.6 fouls per 40 minutes last year — he should be a productive frontcourt player.

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Noah Robotham, right, during the UNLV basketball Scarlet & Gray Showcase at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017.

3. Backcourt length

UNLV’s perimeter defense wasn’t as bad as its interior defense last year, but that doesn’t mean it was good, either. The Rebels struggled to keep opposing ball handlers out of the paint, to the point that head coach Marvin Menzies implemented a zone defense toward the end of the season.

Part of the problem was a lack of length in the backcourt. Guards Jordan Johnson (5-foot-11) and Jovan Mooring (6-foot-2) were undersized for their positions and struggled to keep driving lanes closed. Just by virtue of starting a pair of able-sized guards this season (6-foot-1 point guard Noah Robotham and 6-foot-4 shooting guard Bryce Hamilton are the favorites to start), UNLV should be in better shape on the outside.

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UNLV Rebels forward Shakur Juiston (10) lays up the ball during a game against the Fresno State Bulldogs at the Thomas & Mack Center Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018.

4. A bigger role for Juiston

Senior power forward Shakur Juiston might be saying he doesn’t want to be a go-to scorer, but that’s not really up to him. If the Rebels are best-served by putting the ball in Juiston’s hands, that’s exactly what Menzies will do.

And Menzies probably should do that. Juiston’s offensive efficiency was crazy last season (14.6 points per game, 63.9 percent shooting), though his usage rate was far below that of McCoy (27.5 percent to 21.7 percent). If the Rebels can increase Juiston’s scoring chances while maintaining his efficiency, he’ll be one of the best offensive players in the Mountain West.

5. Experience

Last year was the first time through a Division I schedule for guys like Juiston, McCoy, Diong, Tervell Beck and Amauri Hardy. They were all rotation players, trying to figure things out on the fly. In retrospect, maybe last year’s 0-5 stretch to end conference play shouldn’t have come as a surprise for such an inexperienced crew.

Now, all of those players (except McCoy) return a year older, wiser and more experienced in the ways of college basketball. Throw in incoming transfer Noah Robotham — who started 88 games at Akron before moving to UNLV — and suddenly the Rebels have experience at just about every position.

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Belmont Shore's Bryce Hamilton (4) takes a jump shot over the Colorado Chaos defense during their AAU tournament game at Bishop Gorman High School on Wednesday, July 26 2017. Hamilton is the UNLV basketball program's most prized recruiting prospect for the class of 2018.

6. Freshman flash

UNLV will attempt to balance all that experience with an incoming freshman class that should rate as one of the best in the Mountain West.

Smooth left-handed scorer Bryce Hamilton is likely to earn the starting nod at shooting guard, and local sharpshooter Trey Woodbury will give the Rebels another perimeter scoring option. Joel Ntambwe is all potential on the wing, and big man Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua is already the team’s top athlete.

That group will not only form UNLV’s long-term core going forward, but several of the newbies will play themselves into significant roles by the end of the season.

7. Chemistry

Simply put, these Rebels like each other. It sounds trite, but that can go a long way in a sport like basketball, where personalities and interpersonal relationships can affect what happens on the court.

At Mountain West media day, both Juiston and Robotham raved about how well the players have been getting along with one another. Earlier in the month, Hardy spoke at length about the family feel of the offseason program. And Menzies takes every opportunity to point out how much he likes this team.

It might not show up in the box score, but in the preseason — when optimism reigns — that positive chemistry looks like a big deal.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.