An impressive win made UNLV a Top 25 team in November for the first time since 1992. Another one Wednesday night will give the Rebels their best start since that same season.
Playing as a ranked team for the first time in 2 1/2 years, UNLV must win at Arizona in its first road game of the season in order to remain undefeated.
The Rebels (5-0) joined the rankings this week at No. 24 - the first time they’ve been in the AP poll since the end of the 2006-07 season - following a 76-71 victory over then-No. 16 Louisville on Saturday.
“It shows our character, it shows how much fight we have in us,” guard Tre’Von Willis said after UNLV handed the Cardinals their first loss despite blowing a 19-point lead in the second half.
The win landed the Rebels in a November poll for the first time since 1992, the same year they last opened 6-0. They also began with five straight wins last season only to lose their next two.
To avoid a similar fate this year, they’ll have to perform well on the road with their next two games being at Arizona and Santa Clara on Saturday.
UNLV has lost four of its five trips to McKale Center, where the Wildcats have won 45 of 48 against non-conference foes. Their only loss in the last 16 home games against teams outside the Pac-10 was 72-71 to UAB on a free throw with 0.8 seconds left Nov. 17, 2008.
Arizona (3-2) has won each of its two home games this season by 17 points.
All five of the Rebels’ games have come at the Thomas & Mack Center, with defense keying the fast start. They’ve yet to allow an opponent to shoot better than 40 percent from the field while forcing an average of 18.4 turnovers.
They forced 19 in a 79-64 home win over Arizona on Dec. 20, 2008. UNLV lost to the Wildcats in each of the previous two seasons but leads the series 10-6.
Oscar Bellfield went scoreless in last year’s matchup but had seven of the Rebels’ 21 assists - Arizona had 12. Bellfield has become more of an offensive force in his sophomore season, leading the Rebels with 17 points Saturday and averaging 11.0 for the season.
Willis scores a team-leading 16.0 per game and 10 UNLV players are averaging more than 5.0. The Rebels rank among the Division I leaders with 19.6 assists per game.
“Our team has been very unselfish,” coach Lon Kruger said. “Our depth is huge - it has already paid us dividends.”
By comparison, Arizona is averaging 12.6 assists with seven players scoring more than 5.0 per game.
The Wildcats are coming off a rough trip to the Maui Invitational. They finished in sixth place at the eight-team event, following a loss to Wisconsin with an overtime win over Colorado before falling to then-No. 24 Vanderbilt 84-72 last Wednesday.
Nic Wise has been the difference-maker offensively. He scored 30 in the win over Colorado, but combined for 22 points on 7-of-25 shooting in the two losses in Maui.