UNLV opens its 2014-15 basketball season tonight at 7:30 p.m. when it hosts Morehead State at the Thomas & Mack Center. And with a consensus top five recruiting class led by McDonald’s All-American Rashad Vaughn joined by highly touted point guard transfer Cody Doolin, expectations are high.
Athlon Magazine picked the Runnin’ Rebels to finish second behind San Diego State and earn an NCAA Tourney berth. Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com has UNLV penciled in as a No. 11 seed playing Colorado in in his first NCAA Tourney Bracketology released on Monday.
But what’s the old saying about being able to walk before you can run?
Yes, the freshman class that includes Vaughn, a future NBA shooting guard with excellent range, dynamic 6-foot-8 forward Dwayne Morgan and 6-10 shot blocker/dunker Goodluck Okonoboh is arguably the most talented in school history. And Doolin, a rare pass-first point guard transfer from San Francisco, appears to be the much-needed floor leader Dave Rice’s squad has lacked in recent years. But I would hold off making any plans for March travel to the NCAA Tournament until, well, March.
As talented as this freshman class is, they are still freshmen. And it’s a big adjustment making the move from high school basketball and starring at AAU summer camps to Division I, where, among other things, teams actually play defense. And when you get to conference play, you face teams that actually scout you, try to take away your strengths, and play A LOT of defense. Physical defense.
That’s the one big concern I have about this UNLV squad going in. The Rebels are one Chris Wood high ankle sprain away from not having any real post offense or defense. It will be interesting to see how the 6-foot-11, 220-pounder holds up over the long season, especially the second half of Mountain West play. It’s too bad that 6-8, 230-pound Oregon transfer Ben Carter isn’t eligible this year. He would fill one big hole at power forward.
Then there’s the matter of getting all the talented new faces to jell. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Just ask John Calipari.
We all remember Kentucky, with a freshman class led by Julius Randle, James Young and the Harrison twins labeled by some as the best of all-time, playing in the NCAA Tournament title game against UConn in April. But do you remember that the Wildcats also lost 11 games and finished tied for second in a so-so SEC at 12-6 with Georgia? Or suffered a stunning 72-67 loss at South Carolina (14-20, 5-13) in March?
UNLV’s nonconference schedule should toughen this squad for Mountain West play but not without its share of ups and downs. There are no gimmes other than the Dec. 5 game with St. Katherine at the Orleans Arena and maybe the Dec. 27 home date with Southern Utah. Both of these weekend’s games with Morehead State and Sunday at 5 p.m. against Sam Houston State will be very challenging. And those who bought tickets to New York next week to see a long-awaited UNLV-Duke rematch could come home disappointed. A veteran Stanford team, which made it to the Sweet Sixteen last year and upset Kansas, will be very difficult to defeat in the opener Friday night as will be a well-coached Temple squad if the two play on Saturday.
And that doesn’t even include road games at Kansas and Arizona State, a MGM Grand Showcase match-up with under-the-radar Utah which has Sweet Sixteen potential, and a Dec. 23 home game with Arizona, a potential Final Four team like the Jayhawks. Heck, even a Dec. 17 home game with Portland won’t be any picnic, especially if the 3-pointers aren’t falling.
Yes, it will be fun to watch the Rebels, especially when Vaughn is nailing 3-pointers, Morgan is slashing and dunking, Doolin is dishing and Wood and Okonoboh are swatting shots into Gucci Row. But let’s be realistic.
If UNLV does challenge San Diego State for the Mountain West title and make it into the NCAA Tournament, it will take one heck of a coaching job by Rice and company. And that great team chemistry we’ve been hearing about will bet tested early and often.