With a core of returning players from another successful season joining a group of talented newcomers, UNLV is hoping to reach even greater heights in 2012-13. However, last week's exhibition game showed that the team still has some work to do.
After needing overtime to win their preseason tune-up, the 18th-ranked Runnin' Rebels hope for a better performance in Monday night's season opener against Northern Arizona, part of the Global Sports Classic in Las Vegas.
UNLV's 26-9 showing in 2011-12 marked the program's sixth consecutive season with more than 20 victories and gave Dave Rice a school record for wins by a first-year coach. The Rebels, though, failed to win their NCAA tournament opener for the third straight year and came up short in their quest for their first Mountain West Conference title since 1999-00.
They're hoping to change that this season with returning All-American Mike Moser leading the way and earned their first preseason ranking in 20 years. UNLV will also have all-conference guard Anthony Marshall back in the starting lineup and could get a big boost from highly touted recruits Anthony Bennett, Savon Goodman and Daquan Cook.
Bennett was voted the MWC's preseason freshman of the year, while Bryce Dejean-Jones, who sat out last season after transferring from Southern California, shared preseason newcomer of the year honors.
Dejean-Jones, however, is still recovering from a broken left hand, suffered in a workout Oct. 4, and might play some limited minutes until he's completely healthy.
"We want to work him in slowly. We know he'll be a terrific player for us this year," Rice said.
The Rebels also expect to get some help in December when former high school all-American Khem Birch, a transfer from Pittsburgh, is eligible to play.
While the potential is there, it might take a little while for all those parts to come together as evidenced by an 81-80 overtime win over Division II Dixie State on Wednesday.
UNLV had to rally from a seven-point deficit with three minutes left in the extra period to earn that victory, and Carlos Lopez-Sosa provided the go-ahead layup with six seconds left.
"I think it's a little bit of a wake-up call," Rice said. "It's important for us to understand that regardless of the opponent we have to be more ready to play and sustain us. It's going to take some time and getting familiar we each other, but there's no substitute for playing hard."
The Rebels will try for that improved effort against Northern Arizona, which fell 83-73 in its season opener Saturday at Oregon. The Lumberjacks took a one-point lead with less than six minutes remaining but couldn't sustain it.
Dewayne Russell scored a team-best 15 points off the bench in his collegiate debut, while the team's top returning scorer, senior guard Gabe Rogers, finished with eight points on 3-of-13 shooting.
Northern Arizona is facing UNLV for the first time since an 87-71 loss in Las Vegas on Nov. 20, 2008. The Rebels have won 10 of the past 11 matchups overall, including three in a row, and 13 of 15 all-time home meetings.