So far, UNLV has had an unsurprising start to the season. Three games down and three games won. However, the only true quality opponent that UNLV faced in these early season tests was Cal Poly.
Maybe more surprising to their start are some of the individual performances by both new and returning players. Maybe you have heard the name "Derrick Jones" who has, arguably, the best dunk of the year in college hoops? Then, there's Patrick McCaw who recently scored a career high 24 points.
UNLV has the make-up of a championship contender. Okay, at least Maui Championship. Nothing better than preparing for the Thanksgiving holiday with some hoops in the Aloha State. Here are 5 ways UNLV, a dark horse in this tourney to win it all, could actually do it:
1. Sharing is Caring.
Time to get in the holiday spirit, UNLV. Some of the best as well as most entertaining performances this early season for the Rebels have been when the ball makes multiple touches prior to the score. It's great to have one or two players with high point performances, but UNLV will be at its pinnacle when its entire starting 5 (and at least 2 players off the bench - in this case Jones and Jordan Cornish) can get 10-14 points. This kind of sharing mentality is what we expect around Thanksgiving and could give the Rebels the clear advantage in the tournament.
2. Freshmen Fight or Flight.
This is the first time that UNLV is playing on a national stage this season, and it's a big one. With plenty of families home for the holidays, all eyes are on, arguably, the best early season tourney (featuring teams like Kansas, Indiana, and UCLA). Particularly for freshmen players, a big stage could mean big nerves. Will frosh big man, Stephen Zimmerman succumb to pressure? Will Derrick Jones continue his early season dominance? If both freshmen continue the fight they've shown thus far, UNLV will surprise some people and put teams around the nation on notice.
Historically, Dave Rice teams have significantly struggled when they hit the road (this seems to be especially true during the tough Mountain West Conference schedule). Adding to the uncertainty, UNLV will play its first nationally televised games on the road in Maui. The Rebels have a chance to prove that the UNLV basketball program remains nationally relevant. Rice must ready and steady his squad for the first, true season tests. The returners, and their on-road experience (despite not consistently successful), could serve crucial if UNLV wants to escape Maui as champions.
4. Continue the Block Party.
Early on, the Runnin' Rebs have shown some intense defensive tenacity. Coach Rice has promised the fans in Vegas that his teams will play hungry, but his squads have fallen short too often. This new group of Rebels proves otherwise. From full to half court pressure (and combined with their speedy offensive transition) are deadly when their defense is on point. And beyond that, their front court presence governs the paint. From Zimmerman, Jones, Dwayne Morgan, and Goodluck Okonoboh, maintaining tenacious "d" is paramount on the island.
As I've said from the first preview of UNLV basketball, as Patrick McCaw goes, UNLV will go as well. There may be more vocal leaders on the squad, but Pat McCaw is an emerging star. A guard that started last year undersized and needed added weight, has added both. He's improved his 3-point shooting and remains a threat on the drive; more impressively, he plays like an underdog on both sides of the court. This could be a break out week for McCaw in a national setting, but most importantly for the team, if McCaw plays at his best, UNLV would be hard pressed not to fly home from Maui without being the champs.