Let’s face it, UNLV basketball hasn’t just been mediocre the past couple of seasons, it’s been something far more unforgivable in this city—boring. The Runnin’ Rebels aren’t supposed to be boring. So after finishing 138th in the nation in adjusted tempo last season according to KenPom.com, coach Dave Rice is vowing to pick up the pace. At his disposal is a roster stuffed with sleek, athletic players such as sophomore guard Patrick McCaw, freshman guard Jalen Poyser, freshman forward Derrick Jones, sophomore center Goodluck Okonoboh and freshman forward Stephen Zimmerman, all of whom are perfectly suited to running the floor. Rice has been pushing his players hard in practice so far, stressing the need to play fast, and his young charges have taken to it. Make no mistake, these Rebels are going to be exciting.
20. Ike Nwamu, Duke beater
Watching Duke go down in the NCAA Tournament is such a good feeling, Las Vegas should be legislating it and setting up dispensaries to sell it. So the fact that Nwamu put up 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting to help Mercer bounce the Blue Devils from the 2014 tourney should instantly endear the senior transfer to UNLV fans. Nwamu is a proven scorer (15.1 points per game last year) and a show-stopping dunker, but his Duke-slaying lives at the top of his résumé.
19. Lob Vegas
It seemed like Patrick McCaw was tossing alley-oop passes left and right last season, but for the record, he connected on only eight throughout the course of the season. Now that he’s flanked by a stable of freakish leapers who can go up and get it (see No. 11), the sophomore guard is sure to increase his aerial assists.
18. Growth spurt
As if the super lanky McCaw needed an extra advantage after leading the team with 2.0 steals per 40 minutes as a freshman, he grew almost a full inch during the offseason. He now checks in at 6-foot-7 with the ability to play four positions on offense and defense. The rest of the Mountain West is not amused by this development.
17. This photo of Stephen Zimmerman holding a banner
16. Facelift for the Mack
The Thomas & Mack Center has been home to the Runnin’ Rebels for more than 30 years, and it’s served the program well. It’s creaky and homey and full of memories, but as far as Las Vegas venues go, the old Mack was decidedly unglamorous. So for the fans who want a full entertainment experience (and plenty of Instagrammable selfie options), the arena has undergone a facelift during the offseason, with numerous renovations aimed at bringing the barn into the millennial age. New seats, new digital video screens and a new open-air concourse overlooking the Strip are among the features that will debut when the Rebels tip off against Cal Poly on Nov. 13.
15. Strong schedule
There are no slow stretches during UNLV’s nonconference schedule. Ten days into the season the Rebels ship out for the Maui Invitational, where UCLA and other talented teams await. A couple of weeks later they head to Wichita State, one of the toughest road venues in the nation. Ten days after that, they travel to Arizona, which will be looking for revenge after UNLV upended the Wildcats at the Thomas & Mack Center last year. It’s a brutal gauntlet, but one that should shine a national spotlight on the Runnin’ Rebels.
14. Ben Carter’s interior passing
Junior forward Ben Carter isn’t an elite raw athlete, and he didn’t put up eye-popping numbers in his two years at Oregon. But he’s one of the most popular Rebels among his teammates and the coaching staff, because Carter brings something to the table that has been in high demand in recent years—basketball IQ. Carter is a “little things” player who will bring a tough, glue-guy mentality to the frontcourt. After a redshirt year of wasting perfect wraparounds and gorgeous one-touch bounce passes in practice, Carter’s sweet interior passing should finally lead to some easy buckets for his teammates.
13. Familiar faces
In his first four years at the helm, Dave Rice had only recruited three freshmen who actually made it to their sophomore year at UNLV. But the 2015-16 Rebels will have four such players on the roster, with Patrick McCaw, Goodluck Okonoboh, Jordan Cornish and Dwayne Morgan making up a sophomore core that fans can relate to and rally behind. They all gained significant experience last year and are ready to win now, and they should form the nucleus of the program into the near future. “I think absolutely these are the right guys,” Rice says. “You are always going to have attrition; that’s the nature of college basketball. But I am really happy with our team chemistry and how motivated our guys are and how committed they are to getting better.”
12. Canned Corn
Jordan Cornish made a blistering 38 of his 78 shots from 3-point range last season. If three of his misses had somehow rattled in, he would have recorded the best 3-point shooting season in UNLV history. As it happened, he had to settle for second all-time at 48.7 percent. With an offseason spent refining his stroke, Cornish will come out firing for the record book again this season.
11. This photo of Derrick Jones dunking over teammates Stephen Zimmerman, Ben Carter and Austin Starr
Look at where Derrick Jones is. See how far from the rim he is? See how high off the ground he is? See the three extremely tall humans standing in his way? Jones still slammed that ball. Easily. No big deal. That’s just what Jones does. He’ll spend the season making the extraordinary look routine.
10. The ultimate small-ball lineup
Dave Rice says he wants as many shooters on the floor as possible, at all times. Well, his dream may come true this season, as a small-ball lineup of Jerome Seagears at point guard, Jordan Cornish at shooting guard, Patrick McCaw at small forward, Ike Nwamu at power forward and Tyrell Green at center would give the Rebels five players capable of hitting 40 percent from 3-point range. Veterans Seagears and Nwamu have eclipsed that mark before, McCaw came close as a freshman (36.8 percent) and Cornish and Green are pushing 50 percent for their careers (Green hit 48.4 percent in two years at the junior college level).
Never mind that Green isn’t built much like a center at 6-foot-7, 225 pounds—this lineup has to take the floor at some point, and when they do … bombs away.
9. Pressure defense
UNLV forced 10.8 turnovers per game last season while committing 11.4 per game. That negative ratio was obviously not good enough, especially for the Rebels, who have a brand to maintain. Fans want to see an aggressive, attacking defense going all-out to produce turnovers that lead to transition opportunities. It’s who the Rebels are supposed to be. Rice understands that, but last year’s squad was undermanned and thinned by injuries, forcing the team to play a more conservative style. Now that the roster has been replenished with athletic recruits, Rice is vowing to bring back the pressure defense that made UNLV great once upon a time. The Rebels have played full-court defense almost exclusively during preseason practices, and the players are buying in. “This year it’s all about playing hard for all 40 minutes,” McCaw says. “Playing defense, pushing the ball and making plays. Guys just have to have that mindset. I think everyone is on the same page right now.”
8. This photo of Patrick McCaw testing his vertical leap over the summer
Did we already mention that McCaw grew an inch in the offseason? And that he led the team in steals as a freshman? And that he hit 36.8 percent of his 3-pointers? And that he connected on eight alley-oops? Well, now he’s jumping out of the gym, too.
7. Goodluck Okonoboh’s rim protection
Okonoboh started at center last year as a freshman, and the 6-foot-10 athletic phenom lived up to his reputation as a supreme rim protector as he led the team in blocked shots (2.9 per game) and held opponents to 36.7 percent shooting in the post. But his team defense was a notch below—he allowed 86.4 points per 100 possessions for the season. With a full year of experience in the UNLV defensive system now, Okonoboh should be a contender for the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year award.
6. Bitter rivals
San Diego State beat UNLV three times last season, with the average margin of victory being a scant 3.7 points, including the 67-64 decision that ended the Rebels’ season in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament. Think the returning players have forgotten that? Circle January 30 (at the Thomas & Mack Center) and March 5 (at San Diego) on your calendar, because the Rebels certainly targeted those dates.
5. Coaching tree
Dave Rice may not be swimming in job security (he avoided the ax after an offseason meeting with athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy), but one thing he does have is a solid coaching staff around him. Now entering his fifth year at the helm, Rice has assembled a group of assistants with whom he appears comfortable delegating certain aspects of running the team. Third-year assistant Todd Simon has taken a more active role in implementing the Rebels’ defensive schemes, and he also brings an eye for analytics-based adjustments. Intense second-year assistant Ryan Miller cracks the whip on the offensive side. UNLV legend Stacey Augmon, who has been with Rice from the beginning, continues to do good work in player development. And special assistant Max Good brings decades of coaching experience to the sideline. Having hard-driving, detail-oriented assistants should free up Rice to focus more on the big-picture stuff, and that may end up being a good thing for his continued employment at UNLV.
4. Mad men
The Rebels aren’t playing a complicated defensive scheme. When they pressure full-court, it’s a man press, with occasional trapping in the backcourt depending on the situation (being aware of the opponent’s primary ball handler, the positioning of the inbound’s passer, limiting the available outlets, etc.). It’s a defense designed to win with athleticism and relentlessness, and no position encapsulates that more than the “Madman.” That’s the distinction given to the player tasked with defending the inbound pass by jumping, waving his arms and generally wearing a mask of insanity. Once the ball is inbounded, the madman (usually a center or forward) has to peel off to help trap in the backcourt, or sprint the length of the floor to help defend the rim. It’s a position that requires constant intensity, and such can only be manned in short shifts. So far in practice, it’s been a rotation of Goodluck Okonoboh, Ben Carter, Dwayne Morgan and Ike Nwamu. All have proven capable, and it will take a collective effort to make the madman a staple of the Rebels’ pressure defense.
3. Making the NCAA tournament
The Rebels were picked fourth in the Mountain West preseason poll, and that seems to be the consensus among the various media polls and projections. Not many expect UNLV to make the NCAA Tournament. But the Rebels are so talented and the roster is so deep and the schedule is so solid that anything less than a berth in the big dance would be a disappointment. And the team isn’t shying away from that goal. Nearly every player has said that winning the Mountain West and returning to the NCAAs after a two-year hiatus is the top priority. For Rice, it may be imperative.
2. & 1. Stephen Zimmerman and Patrick McCaw
No one rolled out the red carpet when Patrick McCaw arrived at UNLV as a freshman last year. He came in as the fifth man in a five-man recruiting class, an unranked, unheralded prospect who was mostly viewed as a long-term organizational project. Rashad Vaughn was the headliner; McCaw was the throw-in.
By the end of the season, McCaw had flipped the script. He inched his way up the depth chart, earning more and more playing time because of his shooting prowess, passing ability and defensive versatility, and by the time March rolled around, McCaw was the Rebels’ best overall player and rightly viewed as a program cornerstone. For the year, he stuffed the stat sheet to the tune of 9.6 points, 2.7 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game while shooting 36.8 percent from 3-point range. Now, all you have to do is bring up Patrick McCaw in conversation with Dave Rice and the coach can’t help but smile.
Based on the path McCaw had to take to earn his spot, it would be reasonable if he viewed Stephen Zimmerman’s coronation with a hint of skepticism. Whereas McCaw clawed his way to prominence, Zimmerman is entering his freshman year already having been anointed (by many) as a savior. The 7-footer has the blue-chip pedigree, based on offers from Kansas, Kentucky and all the other heavyweights, and he has a built-in fan base thanks to his status as a hometown hero after winning four state titles at Bishop Gorman High School.
So it would make sense if McCaw wanted the young fella to prove it a little on the court. But Zimmerman’s situation is a bit different. As a Las Vegas local, he was around the program so much during his recruitment—attending practices, taking in games, playing pickup with the players—that the current Rebels got to know him before he even committed to UNLV. And a summer spent working out together has now got McCaw buying into the Cult of Zimm.
“He’s a team guy, and that’s what I like about Zimm the most,” McCaw says. “He doesn’t brag about his game or his accolades. He just comes to practice and wants to work hard like everybody else, and that’s a huge deal for us. He may have a big name already, but you wouldn’t know it. He’s handling it really well.”
“I know how Zimm can run the floor. I know how Zimm plays, he knows how I play. He knows I’m going to be looking for him.” –Patrick McCaw
The fact that McCaw and Zimmerman are bonding is great news for the Rebels. They have the potential to be UNLV’s best 1-2 punch since the Tark era [when Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon fueled back-to-back Final Four runs], and if the Rebels are going to contend for an NCAA Tournament berth this season, it’s going to be McCaw and Zimmerman powering the effort.
On the court, the two appear to be engineered to play together. McCaw excelled running the pick-and-roll last year, and Zimmerman is basically a 7-foot Swiss army knife in the two-man game. On one of the first plays during the team’s first open practice, McCaw came around a ball screen set by Zimmerman, probed the lane and swung a pass back to Zimmerman, who had popped off the pick and stationed himself at the top of the key. Zimmerman caught the pass and fired a jump shot without hesitation. Swish.
The two have since run a series of successful pick-and-rolls in practice, to the point where it should be a staple of the half-court offense, starting on opening night.
“With Zimm, he’s just so versatile, he can work from anywhere on the floor,” McCaw says. “On pick-and-rolls, in the post, the high post—anywhere. He’s really effective. I think the pick-and-roll is where he might be the most effective—he can pop, he can roll—that’s huge.”
And Zimmerman’s game should help open up the floor for McCaw. In addition to being able to score in the post and in the mid-range, Zimmerman is an able passer and a willing screener—the latter skill being especially valuable, considering the Rebels were quite possibly the worst screening team in the Mountain West last year. Every inch Zimmerman can open up with a good pick is another inch McCaw can use to collapse the defense before finding Zimmerman rolling down the lane for an alley-oop.
Although he’s just a freshman going through his first college preseason, it didn’t take Zimmerman long to realize how much easier McCaw could make his life.
“Pat is a very, very smart player,” Zimmerman says. “And, I think, underrated. He’s a great player. He’s a pass-first guy. He’s just one of those guys that is always looking for people.”
Defensively, McCaw and Zimmerman will be centerpieces in the Rebels’ full-court pressure package. Zimmerman’s size and mobility make him a pivotal chess piece in the frontcourt, while McCaw will once again use his elastic 6-foot-7 frame to harass opposing guards from baseline to baseline.
And if the defense succeeds in creating turnovers, the Rebels’ star duo is primed to turn any miscues into immediate offense. McCaw thrived in transition last year, producing 124.7 points per 100 possessions on fast breaks, second on the team only to sophomore guard Jordan Cornish (164.1). Once he gets into the open court, McCaw will be zeroing in on the guys he trusts to finish—like Zimmerman.
“I think we’re getting a good feel for each other,” McCaw says. “In practice, I tell him if he runs, I’m going to hit him. I’m always going to be looking for him, because I like to pass and I know how he can run the floor. I know how Zimm plays, he knows how I play. He knows I’m going to be looking for him.”
Despite starting their college careers at different ends of the hype spectrum, McCaw and Zimmerman are now on the same level. It’s a two-man connection the Rebels hope to ride all the way back to the postseason.