It has been 20 years since Jerry Tarkanian's Runnin' Rebels plowed through college basketball to win the 1990 NCAA Championship. To many, the high-flying roster withand Anderson Hunt was the single most exciting team in the country that year, maybe even of all-time. But then recruiting allegations forced Tark out in '92 and things changed. Mediocrity let itself in. The coaching quartet of Rollie Massimino, Tim Grgurich, Bill Bayno and Charlie Spoonhour pulled together only two NCAA appearances over the next 12 seasons. By the time Lon Kruger was hired in 2004 this program was playing the role of a dormant powerhouse to perfection.
Last night's 76 Classic title win must have signaled the eruption then, because this 2010-11 UNLV team is looking pretty darn good. Yesterday's thorough defensive clinic of Virginia Tech put the Rebels at 6-0 on the young season. In addition to Tech, they have already knocked off Wisconsin, Murray State, and Tulsa. That's not a bad start for the school picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West. Who wants a re-vote?
The interesting thing here is that Kruger's team looks nothing like the dunk-laden squads of UNLV lore. This version uses their abundance of length and athleticism to close out on shooters and deflect passes on defense, rather than dunk on people's heads. Believe it or not, it seems to be an effective strategy. The Rebels are holding their opponents to 57.8 points per game. That stat that looks even nicer when you couple it with their nifty 55.1% (3rd in NCAA) clip from the field on the other end.
But even if you're not convinced by the small sample size, look no further than the emergence of junior foward Chace Stanback to shed light on how dangerous this UNLV team might be. Stanback is a 6'8" sharpshooter who originally signed with UCLA out of high school but quickly changed his mind and transferred to Vegas after one season. He led the Rebels in rebounding last year with 5.8 per night, but consistently took a backseat to guard Tre'Von Willis on the offensive end. His quick feet and endless range make him a complete nightmare for opposing defenses. Above all else, Kruger was hopeful that the kid would once again be a vital cog in a UNLV tournament run.
So when Tre'Von Willis got into a bit of trouble over the summer and his immediate future was in doubt, the go-to role shifted in Stanback's direction for the first time. Even though Willis, a preseason Mountain West POY candidate, would only miss two regular season games for his actions, Stanback literally refused to loosen his grip on the offense.
The passing of the torch officially happened in the Wisconsin game when Stanback dropped 25 to lead the Rebels to a landmark victory. Willis, on the other hand, made his return by throwing down a clunker with just four points on 2-7 shooting and three turnovers. The fact that UNLV actually won the game was surprising enough. But to do so with a completely non-existent performance from a star like Willis was a legitimate shock. Our Mountain West pecking order still begins with Jimmer Fredette and Kawhi Leonard as far as players go, but the idea of having two separate 16-20ppg scorers on the floor at the same time might just make the Rebels the best team in the conference. Stay tuned.