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UNLV hoops preview: Big games to watch and new names to know

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Anthony Marshall & Co. look to start strong—and stay blurry.
Photo: Sam Morris

Start strong and close with a whimper. That’s been UNLV’s M.O. for the past several seasons, including last year, when the Rebels raced out to an 8-0 start and into the Top 25. In coach Dave Rice’s first season, UNLV eventually moved to 21-3 on Feb. 1 before going 5-6 down the stretch and exiting the NCAA Tournament in the Round of 64 for the third straight year.

That finish hasn’t tempered expectations for this season, but it’s good to keep it in mind when looking at the team’s upcoming schedule. There are traps and tests throughout the year, and they’ll be there no matter how UNLV’s record looks after 10 games.

The Rebels open the 2012-13 regular season with two home games — Nov. 12 against Northern Arizona and Jacksonville State on Nov. 17 — but the first real test should come Thanksgiving weekend, when UNLV hosts the Global Sports Classic. In it, the Rebels will play Oregon on Nov. 23 and either No. 24 Cincinnati or Iowa State the following day. Those games, along with a Dec. 19 tilt against Northern Iowa, likely will be the Rebels’ toughest nonconference games, which is to say this season will probably be determined by what UNLV can do on the road.

Here’s a look at a handful of games that could define the Rebels’ season.

Dec. 9 at California UNLV’s first road game is five days earlier at Portland, but this is the first real test away from home. It’s a Sunday afternoon game right around finals week, so there are plenty of distractions already built in. Add that to the Rebels’ usual offensive struggles on the road and you’ve got the recipe for an upset. UNLV needed two overtimes to win its first true road game last year and lost the next two. This one will help set the tone for how the team will perform on the road for the rest of the year.

UNLV forward Mike Moser shoots over the top of Carleton University forward Dan Penner during their game in Ottawa, Ontario, Saturday, Aug. 18, 2012. The Rebels won the game 74-70, the first in a four-game exhibition tour in Canada.

UNLV forward Mike Moser shoots over the top of Carleton University forward Dan Penner during their game in Ottawa, Ontario, Saturday, Aug. 18, 2012. The Rebels won the game 74-70, the first in a four-game exhibition tour in Canada.

Dec. 29 at North Carolina This one’s already marked on everyone’s calendars. In a return game after UNLV defeated then-No. 1 North Carolina at the Orleans Arena last season, the Rebels go to Chapel Hill for arguably the only game this season in which they won’t be the more athletic team.

The Tar Heels lost a lot of talent to the NBA after last season — including Kendall Marshall and Harrison Barnes — but a program like this doesn’t rebuild. It reloads, and that’s exactly what coach Roy Williams did in hauling in another top-10 recruiting class. Looking at both teams right now, no one could fault UNLV for losing this game. But just as last year’s win put the Rebels back on the national radar, a victory would indicate that this season could be something special.

Jan. 9 at New Mexico UNLV lost five conference road games last year, but none as bad as a 65-45 drubbing at the Pit. Lobos forward Drew Gordon finished with 27 points and 20 rebounds, numbers that only begin to show just how badly the Rebels were beaten.

Gordon isn’t around anymore, but talented guys such as Kendall Williams, Tony Snell and Demetrius Walker will be there to try to replay last season’s embarrassment. Much like the California game a month earlier, this will set the tone for UNLV in road conference games in 2013. It’s the first one on the slate, and it comes just before trips to San Diego State and Colorado State, both of which hosted UNLV losses last year.

Jan. 29 vs. UNR Switching gears from road games, UNLV hosts the rival Wolf Pack at the end of January in a game that takes on more meaning because both teams are now in the same league. UNR’s Deante Burton is a preseason all-conference guard and scored 28 last year when UNLV nearly gave away a big lead before holding on for a 4-point victory at home.

This rivalry means more in football, but things haven’t gone well for UNLV on that front, so Rebels fans would love to see their frustrations taken out on the court. Burton won’t sneak up on anybody this year, and the Wolf Pack might not have the size to handle the Rebels. So while it’s not fair to expect it, a blowout victory could say a lot about UNLV as it enters the final 10-game stretch of the regular season.

Jan. 16 & Feb. 16 vs. San Diego State These are arguably the two most important games of the year (the first on the road, the second at home), and they could turn out to be two of the most fun. UNLV and San Diego State both enter the season in the Top 20 and picked to finish atop the league standings. They both have player of the year candidates, Mike Moser and reigning champ Jamaal Franklin. They both welcome notable transfers and big-name recruits and expect to make deep runs in March. There’s added importance, too, because these are the last guaranteed games in the rivalry, with SDSU set to join the Big West next season. From the crowds and the arenas to the coaches and the players, this one’s as good as it gets.

    • The new kids

      With strong freshmen and transfers joining tough returners, the Rebels are ranked 18th heading into their Nov. 12 opener. Here are five fresh faces who could make a difference for UNLV.

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      Anthony Bennett

      6-foot-8, 240 pounds, freshman, power forward

      A native of Canada and former AAU teammate of UNLV sophomore Khem Birch, Bennett has been known around Las Vegas for a while, since he was recruited out of Henderson’s Findlay Prep. Pretty soon he’s going to make a name for himself nationwide as the best player on a top-20 team. Junior Mike Moser is getting most of the preseason attention, but it’s Bennett who ultimately could carry the Rebels — and go higher in next year’s NBA draft.

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      Bryce Dejean-Jones

      6-foot-5, 200 pounds, sophomore, guard

      Dejean-Jones might have been the missing piece last season. An aggressive, athletic wing player who can go to the rim off the dribble or pull up behind the arc, he had to sit out last season after transferring from USC. With enough playing time, he could be the team’s leading scorer and perhaps its emotional linchpin. He looks physically pained when something goes wrong on the court, a characteristic that suggests it will be hard to keep him out of the action in a close game.

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      Katin Reinhardt

      6-foot-5, 210 pounds, freshman, guard

      Reinhardt has the talent and ability to come in and be a factor this season, and that could even mean taking the big shot at the end of a close game. Much like Dejean-Jones, Reinhardt has a reputation for hating losing more than he enjoys winning. That’s an attribute that may have been missing from last year’s team, and it's just one of the things Reinhardt brings to the Rebels.

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      Khem Birch

      6-foot-9, 220 pounds, sophomore, power forward

      Birch still has some waiting to do. The sophomore transferred from Pittsburgh midseason last year, so his first game as a Rebel should be Dec. 17 at UTEP. It probably doesn’t matter how much his offense develops this year because UNLV doesn’t need him to score. Anything he provides at that end of the court will be a bonus. His job is to affect shots and grab rebounds.

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      Savon Goodman

      6-foot-6, 210 pounds, freshman, forward

      Considering he was basically a throw-in to an already stellar recruiting class, Goodman might turn out to be the biggest surprise on this year’s squad. Though he can score, Goodman has already said he knows the key to getting playing time is running his tail off and making every possible play. If he ends up struggling to adjust to the college game, it probably won’t keep the Rebels from getting close to their goals. And if he’s a solid contributor, it could put them over the top.

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    Taylor, who covers UNLV sports, is a 2010 graduate of the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University ...

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