Here’s the truth about the UNLV basketball season: No matter how impressive the Rebels’ record, and by my count they could win north of 20 games starting tonight against visiting Florida A&M, it won’t matter in the push to reach the NCAA Tournament.
The schedule features few chances for quality wins, meaning the lone way for UNLV to break its four-year postseason drought is to win the Mountain West tournament in early March for an automatic bid. The UNLV record could be as impressive as 23-8 entering the league tournament, and its chances of receiving an at-large bid would still be considered slim.
Remember, UNR won 28 games and the Mountain West last season, and it only received a No. 12 seed for the NCAAs because its victories were mostly against lightly regarded opponents. If Reno would have lost in the Mountain West finals, it would have been shipped to the NIT.
Tournament talk at this stage of the Rebels’ rebirth is premature. They, after all, won 11 games last season in Marvin Menzies’ debut, and the poor play won’t easily be reversed. The Rebels’ chances are considered so bad that Kenpom — the Bible in evaluating college teams — ranks them No. 172 out of 351 programs in the preseason.
No. 351 is Mississippi Valley State — one of UNLV’s opponents this year. Yep, weak schedule.
The Rebels also have dates against Prairie View A&M, Oral Roberts and Pacific in making it impossible to build an resume for the tournament. They would have to beat Arizona in one of its lone opportunities against a marquee opponent and win the Mountain West regular season title — which it has never done — to be considered for a spot in the tournament’s play-in round. And even those odds would be long.
The Rebels need games against the likes of Florida A&M to get its younger players experience and confidence. They can’t schedule Duke and Oregon like last year, whey they trailed by double digits before the first media timeout, and expect to develop the younger players who in a few seasons could produce the league’s best team. Newcomers such as Tervell Beck and Amauri Hardy should be four-year players and have already shown glimpses of solid play.
I just don’t buy the narrative the Rebels are a few years away from threatening to be a tournament qualifier. There’s much to like about this year’s roster, especially on the interior with Shakur Juiston, a junior college All-American, and five-star recruit Brandon McCoy leading the way. Juiston could average in double figures in points and rebounds, and McCoy is projected to be a first-round draft pick in the NBA Draft this summer.
The optimism, of course, comes with levelheadedness because there are also plenty of question marks: How will a team of many new pieces mesh? Who plays on the wing? Can they handle key injuries — to Johnson, for instance? Will McCoy play like a McDonald’s All-American?
But at least the program is out of the fog that was last season. There was no debating the Rebels' spot in March, because the season was a lost cause before it even began. That’s far from the case moving forward.
While this season won’t end with a tournament berth, the Rebels will win more than 20 games. More important, we’ll see glimpses of the rebuild being significantly ahead of progress.