The Runnin’ Rebels are rolling at 6-0, and they’re one more good week away from bursting back into the national consciousness.
Today, UNLV takes its perfect record on the road to face Northern Iowa, followed by a Saturday showdown with Arizona at the Thomas & Mack Center. Win both, and the Rebels — who earned two points in this week’s AP Top 25 poll — could find themselves ranked for the first time in years.
Those are relatively high stakes for the first month of the season, especially considering what the program has been through in the last 22 months.
Surprisingly, the first game of the week may be the more important matchup for UNLV.
While Arizona has gone from Final Four contender to a program in disarray in just a few short weeks, Northern Iowa has been better than projected so far, sporting a 5-2 record (with losses coming to national powers North Carolina and Villanova) and a KenPom.com rating of No. 98 — three spots behind UNLV at No. 95.
Winning a true road game against a top-100 opponent would be a big deal for UNLV in the eyes of the voters, and potentially in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee, if it comes to that in March.
Earning a victory in Cedar Falls won’t be easy. Northern Iowa is a tough place to play, as evidenced by the Panthers’ 36-7 home record over the past three seasons. Even last year, when UNI stumbled to a 14-16 overall record, they still posted a 9-4 mark at the McLeod Center.
This is UNLV’s first road game of the season, but the Rebels play the type of basketball that should travel well. True to Marvin Menzies’ vision, it’s a team that overwhelms with size and athleticism around the basket. Freshman center Brandon McCoy and junior power forward Shakur Juiston are tied for second in the nation in rebounding, bringing down 13.0 per game apiece, and their ability to protect the paint has UNLV ranked No. 15 in defensive efficiency, allowing just 0.85 points per possession.
Offensively, UNLV will have to be prepared for a clash of styles. The Rebels have run at every opportunity this season (80.9 possessions per game, No. 11 in the nation), while Northern Iowa will want to slow the game down to the extreme (66.1 possessions per game, No. 342).
Senior point guard Jordan Johnson may prove key to the Rebels’ efforts. He has excelled at pushing the pace, but he’s also shown an ability to operate in the halfcourt. Menzies singled out Johnson for his creativity in a slow-down situation in the first half of UNLV’s win over Utah, so he should be effective against Northern Iowa.
Even if UNI is successful in turning the game into a walk-it-up slugfest, McCoy and Juiston should still give UNLV the upper hand. Northern Iowa is led by 6-foot-9 senior forward Bennett Koch (15.1 points, 8.0 rebounds), but there isn’t a ton of size behind him.
Juiston said the Rebels are excited for the opportunity to get out of Las Vegas and prove themselves on the road.
“When we go on the road, we’ve just got to lock in,” Juiston said. “We know they’re going to have a good crowd. They did well in the [Battle 4 Atlantis tournament], so we’ve just got to stay focused in practice and off the court so we can give them our best shot when we go out there.”