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November 6, 2013

Questions loom as opener nears

There are always questions and uncertainties heading into college basketball season openers. There just appears to be way more than normal for the UNLV Runnin' Rebels and their 2013-14 roster after two exhibitions showed deficiencies that need to be cleared up - and quickly.

Some of the pressing issues deal with concerns that can be corrected with practice and persistence, like free throw shooting, defensive unity and team rebounding. Others, not so much.

Obviously, the biggest unknown right now is the health of star players Khem Birch and Bryce Dejean-Jones, which both missed last night's season primer against Adams State. But there are a host of other question marks that are looming over head coach Dave Rice and his staff with just two days remaining before the win-loss record is actually accounted for.

Here's a look at some of the biggest unknowns heading into Friday's season opener against Portland State:

OFFENSIVE CONTINUITY

Suffice it to say, this isn't a roster full of all-stars where you can just roll out the ball and say, "go get'em". After two exhibitions where it was painfully obvious that UNLV is going to struggle at times putting the ball into the hoop, this group of Rebels is going to have to learn how to play offense together for the betterment of the team.

Sure, getting Dejean-Jones back and healthy will help ease the problem, since he is a scoring machine that has a knack for getting off and making some of the more difficult looking shots you can imagine. However, he won't be the entire solution.

Opposing teams are certainly going to make other UNLV players make buckets. Dejean-Jones will likely be countered with every other team's best all-around defender in every single game that the Rebels play this year.

How will he react to that responsibility? Even better, how will the rest of his teammates react?

This matter is going to fall heavily on whoever is playing the point guard position at the time, whether it be transfer DeVille Smith or sophomore DaQuan Cook. Neither has ever had to fully run a Division I team on their own. Both have shown some strengths and weaknesses in the two warm-up contests. Cook appears to be the better distributor and careful of the two, while Smith looks to be capable of more explosive plays.

How the two point guards on the roster develop over the next month might be your best signal of what direction the Rebels are headed in the long run this season.

REJUVENATED JELAN

A former McDonald's All-American, Jelan Kendrick came to the Rebels as the Robin to Dejean-Jones' Batman. A do-everything style player that just cares about winning is what Kendrick has been billed as.

Through two games, it looks like there is still some rust for Kendrick to knock off before he is capable of delivering what his clippings promise. Not a great shooter, but a sufficient scorer, Kendrick has struggled to find his niche at the offensive end, looking lost at times, if not downright invisible.

With Kevin Olekaibe finally cleared to play, Rice will have a decision on his hands when Dejean-Jones is fully healthy. Will he slide Dejean-Jones to the wing and keep Olekaibe in the starting line-up, or will he use Olekaibe as instant offense off the bench?

It doesn't really matter which way Rice leans. At the end of the day, UNLV is going to need Kendrick's multi-faceted offensive game to come to life at some point. Surrounded by a lot of blue-collar type teammates, Kendrick is going to be counted on to dump in 10 to 12 points on most nights.

His game is capable of those numbers. Can his performance match them?

FREE THROW WOES

This might be the biggest issue that fans have seen over the two exhibition contests - UNLV's inability to capitalize on the charity stripe.

If the people sitting in the Thomas & Mack Center noticed one thing different from years past, it has been the inordinate amount of whistles being blown due to the new hand-checking rules that the NCAA has put in place to clean up play.

Will it work? Maybe. Is it going to make the game in the short term a bit unwatchable at times? Most likely.

But if this remains consistent, the Rebels are going to be spending an awful lot of time at the foul line. After collectively shooting 50% as a team against Dixie and Adams State, that could be a very bad thing.

This is an area that can, and has to be, fixed. And I'm talking immediate action. There has to be a sense of pride. Free throw percentages could be the difference between a few more wins or a few more losses for every team around the nation this year.

Will the Rebels be ready when the lights finally come on for a new season on Friday? That may be the biggest question of them all.



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