Time goes by, and in evaluating things there is a period of time that is neither too late, nor premature - the sweet spot of perspective and evaluation. We're essentially a month away from "first look", and it is a wise thing to evaluate how a team that is in large part returning this season performed last year. Now is the time to look back. The season can broken into several defined themes, which we'll discuss over the coming weeks:
Disaster averted - multiple stumbling blocks do not hamper the Runnin' Rebels from early season success
Sports is an amazing atmosphere for fan, athlete, and coach. Optimism is infectious, everyone starts out with an even record, and with a lot of very successful returning players - building on that success is assumed. This is the place where the Rebels should have been beginning the season last year, but they as a team there were several things that could have prevented success. First, swingman and 3 point marksman Matt Shaw was ruled ineligible for his final season at UNLV, after testing positive for a controlled substance, marijuana, shortly after the NCAA tournament. Shaw regularly created matchup problems with is 6'8" frame and outside shot, his talents were certainly missed. Kendall Wallace suffered a torn ACL in his right knee, requiring surgery and costing him the chance to play in what would have been hi s senior season. Wallace, the Rebels best three point threat, would surely be missed on the perimeter. The on-the-court fallout from Tre'von Willis domestic violence incident would be levied in the form of a several game suspension, approximately 10% of the season. The more devastating blow from a basketball perspective, was Willis's lack of full recovery from off season knee surgery.
It wasn't all bad though, there were new, extremely promising additions to the team. Big man Quintrell Thomas had transferred in from championship contender Kansas, and had finished waiting out his redshirt year - big things were hoped for and expected. Findlay prep product Carlos Lopez had finished out his freshman red-shirt, and was set to step in and assist Brice Massamba in the paint. Adding to all of this, a player named Karam Mashour signed on to be a Rebel and made quite an impression at First Look. Another bright spot was it appeared Derrick Jasper had finally fully healed from his knee surgeries, and was showing an explosiveness that hadn't been seen. The Rebels were picked to finish in fourth place in the MWC this season, behind SDSU, BYU, and New Mexico.
The season started out in normal winning fashion against the exhibition opponents -teams hand picked to be defeated. Grand Canyon was destroyed by 24 points, and Anthony Marshall filled in nicely for Tre'von Willis. Washburn was spanked by 35 points, a game where Chace Stanback showed he was ready to lead in point production and Carlos Lopez was ready to make noise in the center rotation. The Rebels were blazing in their regular season opener against UC Riverside with a 44 point victory (anyone seeing a trend?), and followed it by another whooping on Southeastern Louisiana, a 36 point margin of victory. The Rebels were beating teams by such margins by the brand of defense they play, not just offensive prowess.
One of the oddities of this win-steak, and something that would continue throughout the season was the constant rotation of the 5-spot. Originally sparked by Quitnrell Thomas's propensity to foul (early and often), Coach Kruger regularly subbed in Massamba and Lopez, and they regularly tallied more minutes even though Thomas was the starter. At this early point in the season, people were willing to forgive the regular substitutions as the wins were coming easily and impressively.
Like most teams, the Rebels were scheduled to play in a holiday tournament and the Rebels turned out to be the most prepared team for the Anaheim 76 classic. They won the tournament, and Chace Stanback was named MVP - a well deserved honor. An added bonus was that the tournament was on ESPN, giving vital national exposure to a team that was on fire. Things were clicking so well during this time period that not even a returning Willis at 50-75% strength (from the knee injury) could hamper it.
Following the Anaheim Classic, there were a couple of good wins, a 31 point blowout at Illinois State, and a 12 point road win at our in-state rival, UNR. The Rebels had earned and maintained a national ranking, and were unbeaten to this point with a record of 9-0. The role of leading scorer was up for grabs during this time period, with the majority of times it being Stanback, but sometimes Marshall and once Bellfield. With a couple of high profile games on the horizon the Rebels seemed to be positioning themselves as the team to beat in the MWC - if not the west coast. The Rebels were playing the best brand of defense and making the accomplishments of BYU and SDSU look ordinary. This was, unfortunately, as good as it got for the Rebels last season.
The next few Sundays:
Rocky finish to the non-conference schedule
Playing down to the competition - ugly wins and ugly losses
Tournament time - What effort was in Vegas, stayed in Vegas
Following those, comes the season preview