A different night, a different UNLV player has a breakout game.
That has been the trend recently for the UNLV Runnin' Rebels, and Sunday night at the Orleans Arena was no different. This time, it was DeVille Smith who came to the forefront, as he became the first UNLV player to score 20 points in a game this year, finishing with 21.
That's not to say that no other Rebels stood out against Santa Clara, though. Roscoe Smith concluded with 15 points and seven boards on 6-of-7 shooting from the field. Jelan Kendrick continued his hot play but also going 6-of-7 from the field and ending the contest with 13 points and three assists.
It was an all-around solid outing from the Rebels as a whole. They combined to shoot 61% from the field and a staggering 68% from beyond the 3-point line. UNLV also finished with a season-high in points (92).
But it was DeVille Smith that was the catalyst. Not only was Smith the top scorer for UNLV but he also led the team in assists (5) and steals (3).
They say it takes time for players to feel comfortable with the transition to Division-I basketball, especially junior college players, so the fact that Kendrick and Smith have recently begun elevating their games isn't that surprising.
Going up against a smallish Bronco club, but one with solid guards, Smith was a headache for Santa Clara on both ends of the floor. And when he wasn't pulling up and hitting one of his four 3-pointers, Smith was pushing the ball up the floor and getting his teammates to follow.
A few weeks into the season it felt that Kendrick and Smith may not end up being good fits for the Rebels. They both were lacking confidence and were struggling on both ends of the floor. Fast forward a month and UNLV looks to have exactly what it needed from both as Mountain West Conference play heats up in January.
GAINING AN IDENTITY
It feels so long ago that the Rebels were being blown out by Santa Barbara and losing close games to Arizona State and Illinois. That team back then didn't seem to have any idea what its true identity was going to be.
Finally, it seems as though this club has figured out exactly what it is.
It's not a team of a star or two surrounded by role players. There are no superstars. There are no guys that you can roll the ball out on the floor and say, "Go get me 25 points."
And you know what? That's fine. This group has built up its confidence and its personality by being tough, unselfish and, for the most part, unassuming.
It's not quite what I envisioned from Dave Rice's program in Year 3, but I feel really good about it. Chemistry has been an issue for so many years that it is definitely refreshing that this year's squad looks to have it oozing out of them.
The last season where I can recall where chemistry actually played a positive role in the year was the Sweet 16 season. That was a whole group of good, not great, players that bonded as one and grinded out victories on a nightly basis, not allowing a bad loss or two to derail what they were doing.
This year's team has some of that same look and demeanor. I would think this group is more dangerous, simply because they are more talented than that one, but the similarities are there.
Both teams had a ton of players that simply wanted to win, not caring about any accolades that came their way in the process. I'll never forget when Kevin Kruger came across on the scoreboard and when asked what he wanted for Christmas, he stated, "To sell out the Thomas & Mack." It was that type of attitude that set that squad apart from others in the recent past.
You listen to guys like Roscoe Smith, Khem Birch, Kevin Olekaibe or Kendrick talk and it's the same thing. They don't seem to care about anything other than succeeding together.
Only time will tell if the feeling is accurate or not. However, the longer they win in this fashion, of playing together from beginning to end, the more that feeling is going to grow.