The UNLV Rebels have gotten off to a fast start this season at 7-1. After opening the year 3-0 after a trio of tune-up games, UNLV fell to UCLA 77-75 on Nov. 23. But since then it has won four straight, including a 72-69 win over then-No. 13 Indiana on Nov. 25 and a convincing 80-69 home victory over No. 15 Oregon on Friday night.
Indiana has been docketed as a favorite in the Big Ten while Oregon, which came into Friday night’s matchup 6-0, is still the favorite to capture the Pac-12 title. For a young UNLV group that has three underclassmen starters, it’s been quite an impressive opening to the new season. After failing to advance to the big dance the past two seasons, it appears that UNLV could quickly be developing into one of the top teams in the Mountain West Conference.
The Rebels haven’t made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament since a Sweet 16 appearance in 2006, when a then Lon Kruger-led group finished 30-7 overall and second in the conference with a 12-4 record.
Now, it’s fifth-year head coach Dave Rice’s opportunity to bring this program back to relevancy. Under Rice, the team has two tournament appearance (2011, 2012) and a 86-47 overall record, but the conference record of 37-29 hasn’t done any favors for them. A longtime assistant coach for various teams over 20 years, Rice joined UNLV in 2011 and now he’s in position to jumpstart this group’s success.
Lengthy sophomore guard Patrick McCaw is a phenomenal athlete. He’s the Rebels’ leading scorer with 18.4 points per game as he’s shooting 53 percent from the field and 46 percent from beyond the arc. The 6’7″ McCaw finished as one of five players in double digits against Oregon with 14. The MWC Player of the Week is not afraid to shoot the ball . He’s averaging 12.3 attempts per game and his defense has been on display, with two or more steals in all eight games, including 10 over the last three.
UNLV held Oregon to just 39 percent shooting from the field and the Ducks failed to make a single shot over the final 3:31 of the game.
Freshman power forward Stephen Zimmerman Jr. is the lone 7-footer on the Rebels roster. He’s averaging close to a double-double with 10.3 points and 9.1 rebounds per night. Against Oregon, he was relentless on defense with 12 rebounds, including 10 on defense and a game-high four blocks with 12 points.
Senior guards Ike Nwamu and Jerome Seagers led the way on Friday night with 19 and 16 points respectively. Seagers has been solid this season with 12.1 points and a team-high 4.4 assists per game. Nwamu is a crafty leader for the Runnin’ Rebels.
The best bench pieces for UNLV are forwards Ben Carter and Derrick Jones Jr. Carter is a junior transfer, who is playing his first season for the Rebels after two with Oregon. He’s averaging 8.9 points and a team-high 6.1 rebounds per game. Zimmermann and Carter were high school teammates at powerhouse Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas.
The biggest takeaway? Right now, UNLV is playing with confidence.
The depth, size, effort and the overall grit is there for Rice’s team. With two wins over top-15 teams, this Rebels group is seeing its stock pointing up in the early going.