Analysis:

Bern: Looking at the games that will define UNLV’s 2012-13 season

A rematch of last year’s biggest victory, a trip west and a few conference contests will have everyone’s attention this year

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV fans hold up signs with the Rebels season tag line during their exhibition game against Dixie State on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, at the Thomas & Mack. UNLV won in overtime 81-80.

Start strong and close with a whimper. That’s the script the UNLV basketball team has followed recently, especially last year when the Rebels won their initial eight games to jump into the national rankings.

In coach Dave Rice’s first season, UNLV eventually moved to a 21-3 record on Feb. 1 before going 5-6 down the stretch and leaving the NCAA Tournament in the Round of 64 for the third consecutive season. That finish hasn’t tempered expectations for this season, though it’s a good thing to keep in mind when taking a look at this year’s schedule. There are traps and tests littered throughout the year, and they’ll be there no matter what UNLV’s record is after 10 games.

One of the Rebels' many accomplishments last season was completing the regular season undefeated at home, although they did lose in the Thomas & Mack Center to New Mexico in the Mountain West Conference tournament semifinals. That unblemished record won’t be easy to match, but it’s certainly possible. UNLV opens the regular season tonight at home against Northern Arizona and then Jacksonville State on Saturday.

The first real test comes Thanksgiving weekend when the Rebels host a Global Sports Classic field that includes Oregon, No. 24 Cincinnati and Iowa State. UNLV plays Oregon on Nov. 23 and either the Bearcats or Cyclones the following day, depending on the first games’ results. Those games and a Dec. 19 tilt against Northern Iowa likely will be the Rebels’ toughest nonconference home games of the season, which is to say this season probably will be determined by what UNLV can do on the road.

Poor performances away from Las Vegas were key to last year’s downfall. That’s why the Rebels’ performances on the road, especially in conference games, will be key to determining UNLV’s success this year.

Here’s a look at the five(ish) games that will help define UNLV’s season:

    • Dec. 9 at California

      UNLV’s first road game is five days earlier at Portland, but this is the first real test away from home. It’s a Sunday afternoon game right around finals week, so there are plenty of distractions already built in. Add that to the Rebels’ usual offensive struggles on the road and you have the recipe for an upset.

      UNLV needed two overtimes to win its first true road game last year and lost the next two. This one will help set the tone for how the team will perform on the road for the rest of the year.

    • Dec. 29 at North Carolina

      This one’s already marked on everybody’s calendars. In a return game after UNLV defeated then-No. 1 North Carolina at the Orleans Arena last season, the Rebels go to Chapel Hill for arguably the only game this season in which they won’t be the more athletic team.

      The Tar Heels lost a lot of last year's talent to the NBA — including Kendall Marshall and Harrison Barnes — but a program like this doesn’t rebuild, it reloads, and that’s exactly what coach Roy Williams (above) did in hauling in another top 10 recruiting class. Freshman Marcus Paige is expected to be the primary point guard, and a lot of people are expecting big improvements from returner James Michael McAdoo, who’s in an expanded role at forward.

      Looking at both teams right now, no one could fault UNLV for losing this game. But just as last year’s victory put the Rebels back on the national radar, a victory could be seen as proof that this season could be something special.

    • Jan. 9 at New Mexico

      UNLV lost five conference road games last year, but none was as bad as a 65-45 beating at The Pit. Lobos forward Drew Gordon finished with 27 points and 20 rebounds, numbers that only begin to show just how badly the Rebels were beaten.

      Gordon isn’t around anymore, but talented guys such as Kendall Williams, Tony Snell and Demetrius Walker will be there to try to replay last season’s embarrassment. Much like the California game a month earlier, this will set the tone for UNLV in road conference games in 2013. It’s the first one on the slate, and it comes just before trips to San Diego State and Colorado State, both of which hosted UNLV losses last year.

    • Jan. 29 vs. UNR

      Switching gears from road games, UNLV will host rival UNR in a game that takes on more meaning because the teams are in the same league again. UNR’s Deante Burton is a preseason all-conference guard, and he scored 28 last year when UNLV nearly gave away a big lead before holding on for a 71-67 victory at home.

      This rivalry means more in football, but since things haven’t gone very well on that front, UNLV fans would love to see their frustrations taken out on the court. Burton isn’t going to sneak up on anybody this year, and the Wolf Pack may not have the size to handle the Rebels. So although it’s not fair to expect it, a blowout victory could say a lot about UNLV as it enters the final 10-game stretch of the regular season.

    • Jan. 16 at San Diego State, Feb. 16 vs. San Diego State

      These arguably are the two most important games of the year, and they could turn out to be two of the most fun.

      UNLV and San Diego State both enter the season in the top 20 and are picked to finish atop the league standings. Both have player-of-the-year candidates, Mike Moser and reigning champ Jamaal Franklin. Both have notable transfers and big-name recruits and expect to make deep runs in March. There’s added importance, too, because these are the last guaranteed games in the rivalry because SDSU is set to join the Big West in basketball next season.

      Last year, both games came down to plays at the end with the home teams holding serve, and anyone who was at either of those games wanted an encore as soon as it was over. From the crowds and the arenas to the coaches and the players, this is as good as it gets.

    Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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