It was a helpless feeling. On this same court one year ago, the UNLV basketball team got run out of T-Mobile Arena by Duke in a humbling 49-point defeat.
Duke was a national power; UNLV was historically bad and on its way to becoming the worst team in the Mountain West.
You couldn’t help but wonder that Saturday afternoon, when Duke put up a season’s worth of highlight-reel plays against the Rebels’ roster of players who were so overmatched you wished college hoops had a mercy rule of a running clock, when the Rebels would again be competitive.
Better yet, would they ever be competitive?
The rebuild, as witnessed by tonight’s 95-68 victory against Rice, is on an accelerated path. Yes, it was just Rice. And, yes, the Rebels’ other three convincing wins have come against no-name opponents. But it’s tough to ignore what happened tonight.
The Rebels completely dismantled Rice, leading by double-digits less than five minutes into the game and scoring 51 points in the first half. Rice is either really bad, like UNLV bad last year, or the Rebels coach Marvin Menzies may have flipped the roster in one short year into a contender.
Pass-first point guard Jordan Johnson is the start of many upgrades. He pushes the pace of the game and delivered the ball so efficiently in transition that his teammates’ shots seemed to be frequently uncontested. He scored a season-high 18 points tonight, showing he can be a scorer, too.
Shakur Juiston had 10 rebounds just 10 minutes into the game in continuing to be unstoppable on the boards with 18, Jovan Mooring wasn’t great but still finished with 14 points and five assists, and the Rebels had 15 offensive rebounds. They never trailed.
Menzies is credited with being a great teacher of post players, and with Juiston and freshman Brandon McCoy (23 points and 10 rebounds), the Rebels will have the best two post players on the court every game this year. But let’s not get too excited — well, until Wednesday.
That’s when the Rebels play Utah at T-Mobile Arena in their first, and one of only a few, tests of the season. That’s when we will see if the Rebels revert back to last season’s losing or continue on the way to a 20-plus win season. (Is that too optimistic?)
I tried to find flaws in their performance, ways in which they could be exposed against a better suited opponent later in the week. Is the bench the most experienced? Rice had a few scoring bursts against the second unit, meaning the reserves are a work in progress. An injury to Johnson, Juiston or McCoy would be difficult to overcome.
Is UNLV a great free throw shooting team? Not really, as witnessed last week with 19 missed free throws. How will they compete against an opponent whose players are equally talented or better? We’ll shortly see.
It’s OK to get excited about this team. They are improved and will be fun to watch — real fun to watch. While they still are considered a long-shot to make the NCAA Tournament because of a weak schedule, they will be in the top three of the Mountain West and could threaten to win the league.
More important, there won’t be any seven-touchdown defeats and nights of embarrassment.