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UNLV basketball: Runnin' Rebel Resurgence or Rut?

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The 2015-2016 Runnin' Rebel basketball season is full of promise. But, how many fans have heard that before without the results they hoped for?

Former Rebel Rashad Vaughn and Promising Returner Patrick McCaw
Former Rebel Rashad Vaughn and Promising Returner Patrick McCaw
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015-16 season for the UNLV Runnin' Rebels brings all the promise of any recent season in the Dave Rice era of Rebel basketball.

Sound familiar?  If you are a fan of the scarlet and gray, this opening statement is one that you have hung onto every season for the past few years.  In fact, ever since Lon Kruger left in 2011 to become the head coach for the University of Oklahoma, it seems like Runnin' Rebel success left with him.  Since then, many Rebel fans have exited several games at the Thomas and Mack with frowns underneath their trademark Hey Reb' mustaches.

With all this said, this season could transform everything for the UNLV basketball team.  The exit of a couple of the 2014-15 key players, a challenging non-conference schedule, combined with the decision making of their current coach, spells out an interesting (if not all together exciting) season ahead.  Here's what to look for this year from the Runnin' Rebels:

Players Come and They Go

The Rebels will play the upcoming season with another revamped roster.  The losses of Christian Wood and Rashad Vaughn are significant, because the two combined for the majority of UNLV's offensive talent in the 2014-2015 season.

But, UNLV fans are getting used to seeing their favorite players make early exits to the NBA in recent years. In the previous season, big men Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith both tested NBA waters.  Before that, Anthony Bennett made waves as the NBA draft's #1 pick in 2013 (and his success in the NBA is yet to be discovered).

However, the Rebel team always seemed to press on without key members.   The problem: sub-par seasons.  In 2013, a 20-13 record; 2014, a 18-15 record.  The last NCAA Tourney showing was in 2012 (where they lost in the first round).

The possibility of the Rebels having a superb season is just as equal as the possibility of total disaster.  The most welcome returner will be promising point guard, Patrick McCaw.  McCaw averaged 3 assists per game and over 9 points throughout the season.  Returner Jordan Cornish provides the defensive grit that the Rebs are in dire need of and Goodluck Okonoboh (still the best name in college basketball) will give an experienced inside blocking presence.

A game changer for UNLV are new additions, Derrick Jones and Stephen Zimmerman.  One a high flyer and the other a highly skilled big man, both could provide game time excitement that mimic the Tarkanian days.

The Road is Rugged

What has been surprising about recent seasons at UNLV is the shockingly tough schedules that the Runnin' Rebs have continued to play.  A credit to their team, Rebel basketball has never let up, continuing to consider their program as one of the nation's elite.  However, does that still apply to the contemporary era of Rebel basketball?

In 2013, the Rebels played teams such as Arizona State (loss), Illinois (loss), and at Arizona (loss). In 2014, some of the highlighted games included Stanford (loss), at Arizona State (loss), Utah (loss), at Kansas (loss), but they did have a win over Arizona at home.

It is commendable to have a competitive non-conference schedule, especially since the Mountain West Conference has become (at least in recent years) no picnic to cruise through.  Combined with a more respectable national reputation, a good conference record in the Mountain West now goes a long way.  At the same time, a poor non-conference record can have lasting effects on that crucial moment when the NCAA Tournament committee decides each team's fate.

This year, UNLV starts the season at Wichita State, Oregon on a neutral court, Arizona State, at Arizona, and also plays in the very entertaining Maui Invitational (which includes teams such as UCLA, Kansas, Indiana, St. John's, Vanderbilt, and Wake Forest).

Therefore, at the end of the season, UNLV's non-conference record could be fantastic, and even with a less than tremendous conference record, their RPI and SOS could be high enough to wiggle their way into the Big Dance.  Then again, the Rebel players could find themselves on their couches on Selection Sunday if this tough non-conference gamble ends in ruins.

A Coaching Dilemma

Head Coach Dave Rice allows his players to play very freely, sometimes often to the point of a one-on-one mentality displayed on the court.  This kind of coaching philosophy - or freedom - was most evident last season when Rice gave big man Christian Wood the green light to shoot 3s, at what seemed to be, his leisure.

This would have been excellent for UNLV if Wood was a lights out shooter from deep.  Rebel fans witnessed the same when big man Anthony Bennett was on the squad (and although a much better 3 point shooter), he initially entered the NBA with questions about his physical conditioning as a potential power forward.

A problem that has reared its head during the Rice era of Rebel basketball is that a team of individuals is often on display on the court rather than individuals who play cohesively like a polished team.  When UNLV brought back the glory days of the Tarkanian era by bringing in former members of the 1990 championship team (such as Dave Rice and assistant coach Stacey Augmon), many Rebel fans prepared themselves for staunch team defense and fast pace offensive attacks.  This has yet to come to fruition, successfully.

So far, Rice's coaching perspective is obtrusively unsuccessful, evident in the overall subpar performances of each season since 2011. For these reasons, Rebel fans' patience with Rice is waning.  Even a showing in the NCAA Tourney may not secure their trust (especially if the team goes one-and-done).  Although some Rebel fans won't admit their high expectations, a truly successful season would be one that at least leads to a sweet 16 appearance in this year's tournament.  But is Dave Rice going to be the one who gets them there?