SUN FILE PHOTO
Wednesday, April 14, 2010 | 2:10 a.m.
Tuesday's announcement of match-ups for the second MWC/MVC Challenge Series added another piece to the puzzle that is UNLV's still-incomplete 2010-11 non-conference men's basketball schedule.
But the Rebels are close to having all the pieces in place.
In one of several intriguing contests set to take place just after Thanksgiving, UNLV will face Illinois State on Dec. 1 in Normal, Ill., in the first meeting between the two programs since Jan. 13, 1978.
The Redbirds are 71-30 in the last three seasons under Tim Jankovich, who, like UNLV coach Lon Kruger, played his college ball at Kansas State. In each of Jankovich's three seasons at the helm, his team has won at least 22 games and appeared in the NIT.
Among the other match-ups in the second round of regular-season showdowns between the Mountain West and Missouri Valley Conferences are BYU traveling to face Creighton, New Mexico hitting the road to face Southern Illinois and — maybe the best of the bunch — a Dec. 4 meeting between Wichita State and San Diego State on the Aztecs' home floor.
Northern Iowa, which knocked UNLV out of the NCAA tournament last month in first-round action in Oklahoma City, will play at TCU on Dec. 4.
The MWC went 4-5 this season in the inaugural set of games, including UNLV's 78-69 home victory over Southern Illinois on Nov. 21.
With that game now being set in stone, it leaves the Rebels with two open spots on their non-conference slate.
UNLV is still searching for an opponent to come to the Thomas & Mack Center for the season opener and also is attempting to land a higher-profile foe to begin a home-and-home series with next season, with the first game being played at the Mack.
According to director of basketball operations Mike Shepherd, there are a number of ways the Rebels can go in terms of an opening-night opponent. But finding formidable opponents to go on the road early to face a team which returns virtually everyone from a 25-9 squad isn't the easiest of tasks.
"It's just so hard to find that opener from a Division-I standpoint," he said, adding that the Rebels aren't necessarily looking to "buy" a game against a bottom-tier opponent. "We opened with San Diego a couple of years ago, and that was good, but those are challenges, because no one wants to open on the road, and we don't. We definitely don't want to open on the road."
As for the second vacancy, he said, the two prime candidates are Wisconsin and Arizona State.
Wisconsin went 24-9 this season, losing to Cornell in the second round of the NCAA tourney, 87-69. Arizona State was one of the bubble teams that was left out of the field of 65, finishing 22-11 with an appearance in the NIT.
"They both are in a pretty good position where they need a road game, and we definitely need a home game," he said. "It's just a matter of trying to work it out date-wise. If it doesn't work out with those guys, there's a couple other options that we have."
Shepherd also added that UNLV is in talks with some other schools — with Illinois being one of them — regarding future home-and-home sets.
Senior Associate Athletics Director Jerry Koloskie confirmed the rest of UNLV's 2010-11 non-conference schedule Tuesday.
The home games that are scheduled so far include Southeastern Louisiana, UC-Riverside, Southern Utah and Central Michigan. Those will come on the heels of an exhibition game at home against Washburn.
The annual game played down the road at the Orleans Arena will be against Boise State. There had been talk of Gonzaga coming to down for that contest, but the long-discussed deal — which included a return game at Spokane Arena to be played in 2011-12 — fell through. It was rumored to have crumbled on the Gonzaga side of things.
On the road — along with the trip to face Illinois State — the Rebels will play at Louisville, at Nevada-Reno and at Kansas State.
UNLV has won its last two meetings with Louisville — most recently downing the then-No. 16 Cards at the Mack on Nov. 28, 76-71 — and its last four against Reno. As for the first game in the series with Kansas State, UNLV fell to the Wildcats on Dec. 12 at the Orleans, 95-80.
The game against Louisville will be played in the Cardinals' new home, the Louisville Downtown Arena. As for the K-State game, it will be played at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. There had been talks of that game, which is in return for this season's meeting at the Orleans, taking place at the Intrust Arena in Wichita.
The rest of the non-conference schedule is occupied by three games in the 76 Classic, which will be played from Nov. 25-28 in Anaheim, Calif. That field also includes Cal State Northridge, DePaul, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Tulsa, Virginia Tech and one team that still has to be determined.
The Arizona series will be on hiatus for at least a year after the Rebels and Wildcats had met each of the last four seasons.
"Coach Kruger and (Arizona) coach (Sean) Miller have talked about renewing that one, I just don't think we can get it next year," Shepherd said. "Because they need a home game and we do, too."