Rebels basketball:

Looking at the 5 most meaningful games on UNLV’s 2013-14 schedule

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV cheerleaders and students do the Harlem Shake during their game against San Diego State Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013. UNLV won the game 72-70 to sweep the regular season series.

All games are not created equal. Although it’s advantageous for players to prepare for every game like it’s the Final Four, fans are free to scan through the schedule and circle games at will.

There’s plenty of that to be done throughout the UNLV basketball team’s 2013-14 schedule. A relatively weak nonconference slate contains a couple of intriguing matchups and the expanded conference schedule has more than a few land mines.

The big obstacle in recent years — road games — will still be a challenge this season as the Rebels travel to face a top-10 team within a month and add the birthplace of the “I Believe” chant thanks to Utah State joining the Mountain West Conference. The schedule also contains the same marquee home games against contenders like New Mexico and San Diego State that fans have become accustomed to in recent years.

Overall it’s not an overbearing schedule but the Rebels also aren’t sure just how good they are. How well the newcomers all jell — and how long that process takes — will affect the perceived difficulty of these games.

I’ve searched through the schedule and circled my own dates, coming up with five games that could define UNLV’s season. They won’t win all of these but how the Rebels look in defeat will be just as important to their overall success.

    • Illinois

      Tuesday, Nov. 26 at 7:45 p.m., CBS Sports Network

      This is probably UNLV’s marquee home nonconference game, which doesn’t say too much for that slate. The only other game in the conversation is one week earlier against Jahii Carson-led Arizona State.

      The Illini haven’t been a national power for several years but they’re not complete slouches, either. Former Ohio University coach John Groce went 23-13 in his debut last year.

      The problem for him is a familiar one to UNLV: four of the top five scorers from that team are gone. Groce will try to overcome that with a recruiting class that includes a couple of top-100 guards.

      That means UNLV won’t be at a big disadvantage in terms of experience and depending on how injuries shake out, these teams could be on a very even playing field. While it’s not a big headliner, the chance to play a winnable game against a Big Ten team a few weeks into the season is good for this team.

      It should be a challenge but not so far above their weight class that the Rebels don’t have a chance.

    • At Arizona

      Saturday, Dec. 7 at 2:15 p.m., ESPN2

      Speaking of stepping up in weight class, going to Arizona and coming out with a victory would be on par with UNLV’s victory against then-No. 1 North Carolina two years ago.

      The Wildcats are ranked No. 6 in the preseason Associated Press poll and boast one of the top recruits in the country with one-and-done forward Aaron Gordon. They also have junior guard Nick Johnson and former Findlay Prep forward Brandon Ashley, who played in the McDonald’s All-America game alongside teammate Anthony Bennett two years ago.

      Expectations are sky-high in Tucson and this game is sort of a tune-up for their highly anticipated game at No. 7 Michigan a week later. The Rebels will need an excellent performance to keep it close in a hostile environment.

      Either way, it’s a good way to see how this UNLV team compares with a squad many have pegged for the Final Four.

    • At New Mexico

      Wednesday, Jan. 15 at 6:05 p.m., CBS Sports Network

      Over the past couple of years, the best Mountain West games have generally been the ones where some combination of UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State meet. While Boise State will factor into that scenario this season, it’s still going to be appointment viewing for any of those matchups.

      UNLV doesn’t have to wait long to test itself against its two biggest basketball rivals (sorry, UNR). The Rebels travel to the Pit and Viejas Arena in a span of four days, starting with the preseason pick to win the league in Albuquerque.

      Steve Alford is gone, yet the Lobos aren’t expected to drop off much if at all from last season. They return every major piece from that team — including defending Mountain West Player of the Year Kendall Williams and center Alex Kirk (above) — plus add Kansas transfer Merv Lindsay, 7-footer Obij Aget and freshman Cullen Neal, who’s the son of new coach Craig Neal.

      The Rebels would love to steal at least one of those back-to-back road trips. Much like the Arizona game, this is a chance to see how UNLV stacks up against the perceived class of the conference. If New Mexico plays like it did last season — a lot of close victories — the Rebels should have a chance down the stretch.

    • At Boise State

      Saturday, Feb. 22 at 5:05 p.m., CBS Sports Network

      The Broncos surprised a lot of people with their 21-11 record last season. With all their main pieces back, they’re expected to build on that and be even better, only this time they won’t sneak up on anyone.

      Both juniors Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks made the six-player preseason all-conference team and Canyon Springs High grad Mikey Thompson could see an expanded role in his sophomore season. The Broncos succeeded largely because they protected their home court at the Taco Bell Arena, going 14-1 there during the season.

      UNLV hosts Boise State earlier in the month but there’s less to learn from the Rebels potentially beating a good team at home. That’s been done. Far more rare is the big road victory.

      Based on the preseason projections, UNLV’s road to a conference title goes not only through New Mexico but Boise State, too. Succeeding in that mission will require winning one or two of these marquee road games.

    • San Diego State

      Wednesday, March 5 at 8:05 p.m., CBS Sports Network

      The Aztecs may be a little down this season or they may be right in the mix as usual. It’s tough to tell right now, but no matter where these two teams are in the standings, by March 5 this will be a highly anticipated matchup.

      The fans from both sides simply don’t like each other, making the environment a particularly fun one for college basketball. And the games usually match that anticipation, too. Three of the past four meetings were decided by two points each.

      San Diego State is hoping Tulane transfer Josh Davis and the emergence of a guy like former Findlay Prep Pilot Winston Shepard will keep the team near the top despite losing Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley. Much like the Rebels, the Aztecs’ season could go in any number of directions and few would be very surprised. They both have a lot of unknowns.

      What we do know is that this is one of the most fun games to attend every year and should live up to that billing once again.

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

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