Rebels ready to run, press in exhibition vs. Whittier College

Stephen Zimmerman was a frequent visitor to the Thomas & Mack Center to watch UNLV basketball games while earning McDonald’s All-American honors at Bishop Gorman High School. But tonight the 7-foot freshman forward gets to experience the pregame fireworks and intros for the first time wearing a Runnin’ Rebels uniform when UNLV hosts Whittier College in an exhibition game at 7 p.m.

“I for sure know my parents are going to cry,” Zimmerman said. “That’s a given. I’m just really excited. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. I just can’t wait for it to actually start.”

Zimmerman will be one of a seven highly-touted newcomers on a deep and talented Runnin’ Rebel roster who will be in the spotlight as UNLV opens its 2015-16 season.

Fifth-year head coach Dave Rice, trying to snap a two-year post-season drought, has promised this season to speed up the tempo, press and play pressure defense similar to the glory days of UNLV basketball under Jerry Tarkanian when the Runnin’ Rebels won the 1990 national championship, a team Rice was a reserve on.

UNLV spent much of the off-season working on conditioning and its pressure defense. Led by Zimmerman, returning sophomores Patrick McCaw, Jordan Cornish, Dwayne Morgan and Goodluck Okonoboh, high-flying freshman forward Derrick Jones and a trio of talented transfers in guard Ike Nwamu (Mercer), point guard Jerome Seagears (Rutgers) and former Bishop Gorman forward Ben Carter (Oregon) — who will sit out tonight recovering from a concussion – this, on paper, appears to be the most talented UNLV team since the Tark the Shark days

Look for a lot of dunks and points tonight against a Division III Whittier College squad whose tallest player, junior center Mike Jones-Mensah, is just 6-foot-6. The Poets return three starters from a squad that finished 15-11 overall and 9-7 and in fourth place in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference – one game above Pomona-Pitzer. The team’s biggest “name” player is 6-foot sophomore guard Jordan Bickerstaff, grandson of longtime NBA coach Bernie Bickerstaff.

“Everybody is asking if we’re going to go in there and try and blow them out,” Zimmerman said. “Of course that’s what we want to do. We’re going to play as well as we can and work on our stuff and hopefully things work out that way.”

Still, Rice warned his squad not to come out overconfident, pointing to St. John’s 32-point loss to Division II St. Thomas Aquinas College in Chris Mullen’s head coaching debut on Wednesday night.

No doubt a loss to the Poets – the alma mater of President Richard Nixon – would not exactly be the ideal way to start a make-it-or-break-it season for Rice.

“A win, any way that happens,” Zimmerman said when asked by a reporter what would make a successful debut tonight.

For those who can’t make it out to the Thomas & Mack tonight, the contest will be streamed live on with Tony Cordasco and former UNLV assistant Keith Starr providing the commentary.

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