If I'd told you a month ago that there would be a team from out west ranked in the top 25 at the start of December that's led by players who signed out of high school with UCLA head coach Ben Howland, you'd naturally assume I was talking about the Bruins. Well, guess what. While the program from Westwood renovates Pauley Pavilion and struggles to draw fans to come see it play in the Los Angeles Sports Arena, there's another team that's filling seats and winning games. Meet UNLV, led by UCLA transfers Mike Moser and Chace Stanback.
The Rebels announced their arrival on the national scene under first-year head coach Dave Rice with their 90-80 win over then No. 1-ranked North Carolina last Saturday night at the Orleans Arena in the Las Vegas Invitational. In the immediate aftermath of that epic win, Moser was asked where his team would go from there. The 6-8 sophomore replied matter-of-factly, "To Santa Barbara." Moser was right to focus on the task at hand. Last night UNLV won a hard-fought double-overtime game against Orlando Johnson and a very good UCSB team, 94-88.
At 8-0, Rice's group is shaping up as the team to beat in the new-look Mountain West. That being said, the Rebels will face plenty of challenges between now and March, starting with a schedule that looks like something Tom Izzo put together. Here's what you need to know about UNLV -- past, present, and future.
Ignore what Dave Rice says about Dave Rice.
In the afterglow of the Carolina win, Rice has gone to great lengths to emphasize continuity and to share the credit for this team's success with his predecessor, current Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger. Rice is, of course, an alum himself, having been a role player on Jerry Tarkanian's 1990 national championship team. He hired former teammate Stacey Augmon as an assistant, and was able to persuade the current players to stick with the program through the coaching transition. Thus to hear Rice tell it, the Rebels' ascendance this year is merely a continuation of what started under Kruger.
Certainly Kruger deserves plaudits for assembling the talent that Rice now has on hand, but the first-year coach may be understating his own role just the same. The truth is Rice has made some readily apparent changes in this team's style. It's still early, of course, but over their first 500 possessions or so the Rebels are playing much faster than they did last year, and they're shooting many more threes. This is now an up-tempo perimeter-oriented team.
As is often the case with teams that shoot many threes, UNLV is actually getting their best work done inside the arc, having made an excellent 54 percent of their twos so far this season. They also play at a very fast pace, averaging 72 possessions per 40 minutes. The Rebels have shown they can win at any speed, however. USC slowed them down in a 62-possession contest that UNLV won with ease. If nothing else this team has shown an ability to thrive amidst change.
Mike Moser demonstrates the hazards of player evaluation
When you post a 16-18 double-double against a Tar Heel front line that's about to put three players in the NBA, you draw attention to yourself. Mike Moser is self-evidently a beast, and with what he's done thus far he's made a case as the early favorite for Mountain West Player of the Year. Heck, at this rate he'll be in the National POY discussion, and that May 2010 sound bite where Ben Howland said he didn't "envision" that Moser would get minutes at UCLA is looking rather ill-advised, to say the least.
Moser's strong start can be seen as his application to fill the opening created by Kenneth Faried's graduation from Morehead State last year: in Moser we may just be looking at the game's best all-around rebounder. Right now he's gathering in 17 percent of UNLV's misses during his minutes, as well as 29 percent of opponents' missed shots. The last time I saw a player combine dominance on the boards with frequent steals (Moser's recorded 20 in 440 personal defensive possessions), I was suggesting that Pitt's DeJuan Blair was rather good. And at this point I should probably mention that in addition to everything else Moser is the Rebels' leading scorer. He personally accounts for 28 percent of the team's shot attempts while he's in the game, and he's draining 57 percent of his twos. However Moser's overall scoring efficiency is dinged by the fact that he's rather doggedly trying threes, and to this point he's shot just 31 percent from out there. Still, he is hitting 80 percent of his free throws, so I suppose it's possible those 3's could start to drop at some point -- in fact he was 6-of-9 from outside against the Gauchos last night.
The other former Bruin is good too
Moser's fellow UCLA transfer Chace Stanback is also attempting 28 percent of UNLV's shots during his minutes, and the 6-8 senior is accurate from both sides of the arc. (Stanback also possesses what I refer to as the Jordan Taylor Invisible Weapon: he hardly ever commits turnovers.) Moser and Stanback comprise a formidable scoring combination, but the good news for Rebel fans is those two don't have to do it all. Combo guard Oscar Bellfield is actually the team's most efficient scorer, albeit in a supporting role. Nominal point guard Anthony Marshall has struggled shooting from the field but has recorded 11 assists for every 100 possessions he plays. And 6-3 junior Justin Hawkins records steals at a rate than even Moser can't match. Rice has a very solid team here. And they'll need to be solid....
Prepare to be shocked: UNLV will not "run the table"
Just look at this schedule. On Sunday the Rebels will play at Wichita State as part of the Mountain West-Missouri Valley Conference Challenge. The following weekend Rice's team plays at Wisconsin. On December 17 UNLV will be in Chicago to play Illinois in the United Center. (Must have been something former Illini coach Kruger lined up.) And right before Christmas California will come to Vegas. In other words UNLV is about to test the theory that a tough non-conference schedule is the best preparation to play the teams in your league. If that theory is true, goodness knows the Rebels should dominate the Mountain West in 2012.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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