UNLV is 7-0 for a second straight season. The last time it opened with eight straight wins, it finished just shy of playing for a national championship.
Looking for their best start in 20 years, the No. 24 Rebels visit rival Nevada on Saturday night.
UNLV continued its strong play on the road with an 82-51 win at Illinois State on Wednesday. After posting three victories to win the 76 Classic tournament in Anaheim, the Rebels built a 17-point halftime lead against the Redbirds, holding them to 36.4-percent shooting while outrebounding them 44-30.
“Defensively, we started slow, but we picked it up in the second half,” coach Lon Kruger said. “For a road game, I thought we played consistently from start to finish. We were a pretty good road team last year and most of those players are back this year.”
Defense has been a key part of the team’s fast start. It’s holding opponents to 56.9 points on 35.1 percent from the field. The Rebels are also forcing 17.1 turnovers per game, something they’ll look to use to their advantage against mistake-prone Nevada (1-5), which is averaging 15.7 per game.
UNLV also won its first seven games last season, reaching the NCAA tournament before losing to Northern Iowa in the first round. The last time it won its first eight games was in 1990-91, when it opened 34-0 before losing to Duke in the Final Four, a year after it won the national championship.
With a stingy defense and balanced offense, the Rebels seem poised to be a threat again. They have six players averaging 8.0 points per game or better, led by Chace Stanback (16.4), who had 12 points against the Redbirds after earning most outstanding player honors in the 76 Classic. He was one of four players to finish in double figures.
A young Nevada roster doesn’t figure to put up a much bigger challenge than Illinois State. UNLV has won the last four meetings against the Wolfpack, including an 88-75 victory last season. Oscar Bellfield, averaging 11.4 points this season, had a career-high 22 points in that game.
Nevada is playing just its second home game, retuning home after an 82-65 loss at South Dakota State on Tuesday.
The Wolfpack, losers of five straight after a season-opening win over Montana, committed 22 turnovers which the Jackrabbits turned into 25 points.
Nevada’s start is its worst since the 1999-2000 team lost six of its first seven games. That squad went on to finish 9-20.
A better effort from Dario Hunt is imperative if the Wolfpack are to have any chance of an upset. Hunt was held to a season-low two points in 12 minutes Tuesday after scoring in double figures in the previous five games. Hunt is the only upperclassman in the starting lineup, which features three freshman.
UNLV leads the all-time series 52-19.