Maybe there isn't enough room on the Runnin' Rebel bandwagon after all?
I'm getting the feeling that a portion of the UNLV fanbase may be out of touch with reality. What some want is for the Rebels to look like is a well-oiled machine ready to capture the NCAA Championship. What they are getting is a team that is trying to improve every single game and figure out what lineups go well in certain situations.
The real question is - is it fair to feel this way?
It's time to find out by pointing out some facts and myths about the Runnin' Rebels.
MYTH: Rice is outcoached on a nightly basis and it's pure luck that the Rebels are able to win games. Sure, Rice may not be the most seasoned coach on the block and continues to learn every game that he is on the sideline, but to say that he is constantly outcoached is trying to find fault when it's not there. Don't buy into it. Rice's defense is ranked No. 1 in the Mountain West Conference this year with a bunch of guys that people complain can't play defense well, especially Katin Reinhardt and Anthony Bennett. The offense has seemed a bit unbalanced at times but there are a variety of reasons for that, none of which have to do with coaching.
FACT: The Runnin' Rebels have done more in head coach Dave Rice's first year and a half than they had in the past 20 years. The only thing up for debate on this was the surprise Sweet 16 season during 2006-07. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is even remotely close. Rice has a win over a No. 1 ranked team on national television, a 76% winning percentage, upgraded recruiting, sold out a game against Wyoming, and has generated more buzz in the community than at any point since the Tarkanian days.
MYTH: Highly skilled freshmen-laden teams do what Kentucky did last year more often than not. All the coach has to do is preach a little about chemistry and everything will be peachy keen. Only three teams in recent history have been able to take a highly touted recruiting class and worked magic with them to earn a shot at the NCAA Title game. Those were the Fab Five at Michigan, Syracuse with Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara, and last season's unforgettable Kentucky club. There are much ballyhooed classes every year that don't pan out the way fans expect them to.
FACT: Bennett and Reinhardt are the two best freshmen that UNLV has had since Wink Adams donned a Rebel jersey. And truthfully, they may both be better than Adams was during his first campaign, certainly Bennett is, while Reinhardt is debatable. As far as freshmen classes go, there is no arguing that this is the best in at least a quarter century, and possibly ever. They've both taken their lumps from supporters who've claimed that they haven't lived up to the massive hype built up for them.
MYTH: The Rebels are showing the same tendencies as they did last year with a fast start and are about to cool down and finish in the middle of the pack of the MWC before being knocked out in the first game of the NCAA Tournament. They aren't showing the same tendencies as last year at all. Contrary to belief, UNLV continues to improve on the defensive end of the floor. Sure, the addition of Khem Birch has significantly helped guarding the rim, but we've also seen Rice rip players out of games for not defending well. That's going to help in the long run, too. Reinhardt's improvement on defense has been as big as any change on the team since the beginning of the year when teams went at him at every opportunity. You aren't seeing that anymore. UNLV's perimeter defense is also the best fans have seen in years.
FACT: The Rebels are very capable of winning the MWC for the first time since 2000 and will be as feared an opponent as any other non-No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Why, you ask? Size and talent is the reason, pure and simple. How do opposing teams defeat size and talent in these types of games where opponents are unfamiliar with each other? They do it by shooting the outside shot, which is the strongest area of the Rebel defense. No coach is going to want to see the front line of Birch and Bennett to go along with Reinhardt, Marshall, Dejean-Jones, Moser and Hawkins. Based on talent alone, this team will be able to take care of any team it faces.
MYTH: UNLV hasn't improved throughout the year. In fact, they have regressed, especially on offense. What makes it look like the Rebels are regressing is that they aren't getting a ton of easy buckets on breakouts, which is something that everyone thought was going to be a staple of this club. For whatever reason, UNLV has turned into a half court style of basketball team. There is a ton of micromanaging going on and that is slowing the Rebels down. What's funny is that fans were upset whenever UNLV was playing with too much freedom early in the year and now they are upset whenever the team slows down and values the ball and doesn't take as many chances. Sure, there has to be a balance. It just seems that this team is more comfortable, especially Marshall, when in the half court. He would rather not make a pass that leads to a turnover than try and speed things up and throw the ball away. For good or worse, that's where the Rebels' offense lies at the moment.
FACT: Any significant run in the postseason is going to be spent played in a half court brand of basketball. Look around the country on a nightly basis and see what some of these scores are. Heck, Northern Illinois just scored four points in an entire half over the weekend. It's much easier to slow a tempo than it is to speed one up. For UNLV to have any success in March, learning to win games in the half court is essential. Do I wish that there was more fast breaks and showtime on the court? Absolutely. Unfortunately, unless DaQuan Cook grows up a lot more in a hurry that probably isn't going to be the case from here on out. The Rebels will have to keep grinding on defense and trying to improve on offense. And that could turn out to be a very promising recipe.
MYTH: With all this talent, UNLV was primed for its breakout year and be able to contend for a National Title. This is actually the learning curve year for so many of the players on the roster. Factor in Marshall having to learn the point guard position on the fly and you have a year that is going to be full of ups and downs. Certainly the talent is tremendous but we've seen how hard it is to overhaul a roster with blue chips and everything run according to plan. Meshing and learning at the same time is a difficult proposition but one that Rice has taken on for the future of the program.
FACT: Next year will be the year that the Rebels have a chance to take it to the next level, in regards to national success. Sure, UNLV is going to lose a ton on the offensive end with Bennett and Marshall moving on but replacing them won't be as hard as imagined. Dejean-Jones and Reinhardt are going to be a lethal tandem on the perimeter once they play within their capabilities. Throw in a defensive minded front court of Birch and Roscoe Smith and UNLV could have one of the better defenses in the nation a year from now. Smith doesn't bring the pop of Bennett on the offensive end but is light years ahead of Bennett on defense. Add to the mix an ever improving Savon Goodman and a player that has something to prove on the national level (Jelan Kendrick) and you have a veteran roster that is explosive on offense and gritty on defense. That's how you strike gold in April.
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