UNLV released its non-conference schedule on Wednesday, and the initial reaction was that the Rebels have signed themselves up for a killer slate that will immediately test new coach Marvin Menzies and his largely Mod Podged roster.
But just how tough will the schedule turn out to be? At this point in the offseason, it’s hard to say. There are some teams that we pretty much know will be good-to-great—Duke, Oregon, Kansas—but those games are clustered together over a 12-day span in December. In the early going, there may be a chance for UNLV to stack up a handful of wins against squads of lesser quality.
Here’s the complete schedule:
Nov. 1 — vs. Dakota Wesleyan (exhibition)
Nov. 5 — vs. New Mexico Highlands (exhibition)
Nov. 11 — vs. South Alabama
Nov. 16 — vs. UC Riverside
Nov. 19 — vs. Cal State Fullerton
Nov. 22 — vs. Northern Arizona
Nov. 25 — vs. TCU
Nov. 26 — vs. Western Kentucky or Washington
Nov. 30 — at Southern Utah
Dec. 3 — at Arizona State
Dec. 10 — vs. Duke (at T-Mobile Arena)
Dec. 14 — vs. Incarnate Word
Dec. 17 — at Oregon
Dec. 19 — vs. Southern Illinois
Dec. 22 — vs. Kansas
Let’s take a look at some of the positive and negative aspects of such a challenging schedule:
The first month of the season will be spent entirely at home, and that is sure to help the comfort level of a new team as they try to build chemistry together. The Rebels will have eight games (including two exhibitions) to work out the kinks before they have to hit the road, and all told, nine of the 13 non-conference games will be played at the Thomas & Mack Center. Throw in the Duke game, which will be played at the nearby T-Mobile Arena, and the localized schedule should be a good thing for UNLV.
The first four opponents should be beatable. All of them finished last season with a KenPom.com rating of 230 or worse, and though they could be improved in 2016-17, I wouldn’t expect any of them to take a quantum leap forward. After the first four games (all at home), UNLV should be sporting a 3-1 or 4-0 record, which could build confidence among the players.
One of the knocks against Marvin Menzies during his time at New Mexico State was his lack of big wins—his teams always made the tournament but never notched an eye-opening upset, either in March or in the regular season. Well, he’ll have a chance to rectify that in December, when the Rebels get a crack at a trio of top-10 teams. Expectations will be low when UNLV takes on Duke (Dec. 10), Oregon (Dec. 17) and Kansas (Dec. 22), but with two of the games in Las Vegas, maybe Menzies can summon some magic and pick off one of the big boys. A single win during that stretch would instantly energize the fan base, while three blowout losses wouldn’t be held against the team. It sets up as a win-win situation as the Rebels go hunting for an upset.
No matter how low expectations may be for next season, it’s hard to count the Rebels out of the Mountain West race, simply based on the weak state of the conference. There are a lot of winnable games on the MWC slate, and UNLV will almost certainly be battle tested by the time league play begins. That was part of Dave Rice’s philosophy and one of the reasons why he liked to stack the non-conference schedule, and now we’ll get a chance to see how that approach works out with Menzies at the helm.
Lots of losses
The Rebels are going to take their fair share of losses this season, and that can be demoralizing for the players. Losing cultures are difficult to turn around, so it will be important for the coaches and players to power through the setbacks and focus on internal improvement. Of course, it’s easy to say that now and harder to actually do it after a 30-point home loss to Kansas.
Las Vegas is often painted as a town for winners, and that is largely true of the fan support for UNLV basketball. When the Rebels have been good in recent years, the crowds at the Thomas & Mack Center have been electric. But when the team has underachieved, as in the last three seasons, the support has withered to the point where the Mack is virtually lifeless on certain nights. How will the community respond when the Rebels are treading water around the .500 mark this season? What if the win-loss record is even worse than that? Yes, fans will turn out for the marquee games against Kansas and Duke, but a string of losses will likely lead to less-than-exuberant crowds throughout the season.
This is more of an intangible factor, but you better believe a lot of people are circling the games against Southern Utah (Nov. 30) and TCU (Nov. 25). That’s because both teams now employ former UNLV assistant coaches who will be looking for some measure of revenge after what went down last year. Todd Simon served as the interim head coach after Dave Rice was fired, and he left for Southern Utah once he got the sense he was out of the running for the permanent head job at UNLV. Ryan Miller interviewed for the head coaching job at UNLV as well and even had some interest in staying on in an assistant role, but jumped for a similar job at TCU when the Rebels started dragging their feet during the hiring process. Both coaches had their fans at UNLV who wanted them to remain, and it would be a bit of a black eye to lose to their new teams. It’s not rational, but having both coaches pop up on UNLV’s schedule so quickly could end up stinging.