UNLV bounced back from a subpar 2008-2009 NIT season to finish 25-9 and earn a spot in the NCAA tournament for the third time in four years. This is of particular note because it was the first time the team earned three berths in four years since their nine year run in the Big Dance. UNLV's 25-9 mark included a tie for third with San Diego State and finished as runner-up to the Aztecs in the conference tournament. Although the Rebels managed an at-large bid, any hopes of some kind of run were crushed by one of the many Cinderella squads. The Northern Iowa Panthers knocked off the Rebels 69-66 thanks to an Ali Farokhmanesh three pointer with 4.9 seconds remaining in the game.
Although the loss was a heart-breaker for this UNLV fan, the team heads into the summer with an incredible amount of optimism. As you'll see after the jump, expectations will be incredibly high for the Rebels in 2010-2011, as they return their top eight players. Additionally, they'll be adding in some more talent, likely leading to the highest expectations of the Lon Kruger era.
Heading into this past season, there really were no specific expectations surrounding the Rebels. It's not to say that expectations were low, but rather, there were simply a lot of question marks. The Rebels graduated three of their top four players, including team leader Wink Adams. Junior Tre'Von Willis was expected to take over the leadership role and sophomore Oscar Bellfield was going to be "the man" at the point. Beyond that, though, the Rebels were adding in transfers G/F Chace Stanback and G Derrick Jasper, as well as freshman guard Anthony Marshall.
When you add in that many new players to the starting lineup and rest of the rotation, it's hard to tell what will happen. Stanback and Jasper had practiced with the team the previous season, but were sitting out due to NCAA transfer rules. Furthermore, Derrick Jasper was attempting to come back from microfracture surgery. The team was picked third in the conference's preseason poll, which given the lower half of talent in the conference, made sense for a team with question marks.
The Rebels non-conference schedule provided just about everything one needed to know about the 2009-2010 Runnin Rebels. Early on they stunned the then ranked Louisville Cardinals and went down to Arizona to grab a win. Of course, as the season went on, neither of those wins looked remotely as good as they did at that time. December saw the Rebels primary weakness exposed. On December 12, and again on December 25, the Kansas State Wildcats and USC Trojans, respectively, provided a blueprint for beating UNLV: get physical with them. UNLV had some size in the middle in Brice Massamba, but they simply could not match up well with an especially physical opponent.
The Rebels managed to rebound in impressive fashion at the start of conference play. After a narrow loss at BYU, the Rebels went into The Pit and beat 14th ranked New Mexico, and then beat San Diego State at home, a year after the Aztecs swept three games from the Rebels. Of course, in rather ridiculous fashion, they followed that up with a surprising home loss to an inconsistent Utah Utes squad. It would be made even more bizarre when the Rebels lost again to them a month later.
Outside of the Utah loss, things were running fairly smoothly until injuries knocked out Derrick Jasper and Matt Shaw in February. While Shaw would return and make some solid contributions, Jasper missed the final 13 games of the season. Jasper was not a team leader in any categories, but he was the kind of player who did a little bit of everything for the team. Although the first game after his injury saw the team blow out BYU, his presence was missed in three straight losses following that. Maybe they wouldn't have won the conference tournament, or beating Northern Iowa, but he certainly would have helped.
The up side to losing Jasper was the emergence of freshman Anthony Marshall. The freshman guard saw his playing time bounce around quite a bit through January. Once Jasper went down, Marshall's minutes increased as he became a go-to guy off the bench, and even managed multiple starts down the stretch. Although the team had several talented starters, Marshall was the most athletic player on the team. Of course, as is the case with a freshman player, one minute he would make a spectacular block on a fast break, and the next minute he was throwing away easy passes.
- Although it took some time for the team to gell, they became a cohesive unit that played extremely well together. Given the number of transfers and freshman on the team, they developed quite well, which bodes well for next year.
- Tre'Von Willis effectively took over the reigns of leadership from Wink Adams. Willis was the best player on the team and there was never a question of who the alpha-dog was.
- Chace Stanback was inconsistent at times, but his mid-range jump shot became a money shot for the team. Now that he's had a year of playing time in the system, his numbers should only improve.
- Oscar Bellfield quietly was a rock at the point. He led the MWC during conference play in assist-to-turnover ratio and had no trouble accepting his role as the table-setter. At the same time, he showed he could hit important baskets when needed.
- Brice Massamba remains a bit inconsistent, but the rising junior showed an ability to take over a game on occasion. The next step is creating some consistency from him.
- Anthony Marshall was the guy that got the crowd excited. If he can develop any kind of jumper (his primary weakness), he could be a monster in this league.
- Unlike 2008-2009, this Rebel team closed out the year strong, getting dominating wins in games they were expected to win. The prior year they blew too many must-win games and ended up in the NIT. A strong finish got them into the NCAA Tournament this year. That kind of killer instinct is a must in the Mountain West.
- The team was incredibly soft when confronted by a physical team. The team had a 3-headed "monster" at center, but only Massamba showed a willingness to mix it up inside. As I point out below, this will hopefully be changing next season.
- The team would get some big games from players other than Willis, but there were too many games where Willis would get his points and nobody else would contribute. They need consistent production from the #2 and #3 scorers if they're going to make any noise in March.
- Although the Rebels dominated Utah in the conference tournament, I really don't know how to explain the two regular season losses to the Utes.
The good news for the Rebels, and us fans, is the fact that this past season was a "re-loading year" and next season is what the program has been building for. Next season, one could argue the expectations will be the highest they've been since Jerry Tarkanian was on the sideline chomping on his towel. That's not to say the Rebels are going to be winning a title next season, but the talent is in place for big season.
The Rebels return all five starters. Their only graduates are backup forward Darris Santee and walk-on senior Steve Jones, who combined to average 6.0 points and 4.3 rebounds. Over the course of the season, Lon Kruger worked a fairly large rotation of players, which meant freshmen Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins found lots of playing time at their disposal. This will help the two guards as they head into their sophomore seasons.
Potentially more important for the Rebels is the fact that they'll be adding some serious size to the rotation in 2010. The Rebels will be able to activate Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas and red-shirt freshman Carlos Lopez. This is of great significance because Thomas is a a traditional bruising 6-8 power forward and Lopez stands at 6-11, added fifteen pounds of muscle this season, and can play both inside and outside. I'd imagine Lopez will be slowly worked into the rotation, while Thomas will become a more immediate presence, much like Stanback and Jasper this past year. If he's as physical as the reports indicate, the Rebels may have some kind of solution for their soft interior.
Finally, UNLV waits patiently for decisions from high school seniors Cory Joseph (Findlay Prep) and Dwayne Polee (Westerchester (CA.) High). Polee is a 6-7 swing-man who would bring some quality athleticism to the fold. Joseph on the other hand is ranked #7 among all players in the class of 2010. Neither player has made known their plans, although it's rumored Joseph might do so this Saturday after the Jordan Brand Classic at Madison Square Garden.
Whether the Rebels end up with either prospect, confidence is high in the desert heading into next season.