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'Courtside' With Jon Sandler

Editor's note: - This is a regular feature where Runnin' Rebel play-by-play broadcaster Jon Sandler provides insights and observations on the team, individual players, opponents, travel, coaches, etc.....

Feb. 15, 2010

Confidence and is remarkable how critical each can be during the season. The Runnin' Rebels had both in their favor against BYU and it resulted in one of, if not the best, first half played by any NCAA Men's Basketball team this year. Four days later, New Mexico came in and shook that confidence. San Diego State exploited matchup advantages. The ride back was the quietest I can remember. And now the Rebels head to Salt Lake to face an unpredictable Utah team that has already beaten them--certainly the Utes pose some significant matchup problems and certainly, the Rebels' confidence is not where it was 10 days ago.
But as quickly as things headed in the wrong direction, they can turn around just as quickly. A win at Utah would be huge. The schedule is favorable from then on out, with 3 of the last 4 at home (and one really scary trip to tiny Clune Arena) and the Rebels have a chance to really develop momentum headed into the post-season. The last couple of games have shown that the team really misses Derrick Jasper in many ways, and that when Tre and Chace have off nights, as all players do, things get even more difficult. But ultimately, it boils down to confidence--knocking down shots early and getting stops, turnovers, etc. Both will be tough to do against Utah. They might be the most underrated defensive team in the conference and their unabashed physical style--Coach Boylen makes no secret of the pushing, grabbing, etc. style the play--can really disrupt the Rebels.  The guys understand the importance of Wednesday's game and they will be ready for the battle--sometimes terms like that are overused in sports but "battle" is certainly appropriate in this case--the Utes want to turn the game into a 94-foot rugby match.The Rebels have to impose their will and style. One end feeds off the other--it sounds elementary--getting stops on the defensive end leads to transition opportunities on the offensive side. Making shots allows the defense to get set, etc., etc..... as I said, it sounds elementary--and it is--until you step on the court and try to do it.
This Runnin' Rebel team has the character and cohesiveness to get the job done at Utah--now they have to do it.



Jan. 18, 2010

When the conference schedule came out , the conventional wisdom was that the Rebels would probably split their first four games - win two at home and drop two on the road at BYU and New Mexico. Well, they are 2-2, but they didn’t get there the way anyone expected.

After missing a chance at Provo, the guys played a great game at The Pit, led by Kendall’s best shooting performance of his career. Confidence was high and the team felt as if it was headed in the right direction. That continued with the win over San Diego State - a great second half led by, who else, Tre'Von Willis, and another really good performance by Chace Stanback led the way. All signs pointed to another good performance against Utah ... so what happened? Utah’s defense happened. They played great - shot it better from 3-point range than anyone could have predicted and, despite Tre’s 27, didn’t give the Rebels much of anything at the offensive end. Yes, 7-3 and 7-0 Foster and Washburn were problems and the Rebels have to figure out how to get them away from the basket more effectively. But the Utes only gave the Rebels a couple of decent looks from 3 - and that was frustrating. Yes, there were some key turnovers and yes, the Rebels were uncharacteristically poor from the line that night. And yes, Utah grabs, bumps, holds and does whatever they can get away with to try to disrupt you. But if they can get away with it, and they did quite a bit, you have to find a way to battle through it - and the Rebels could not. Give them credit - their defense was the difference in the game.

This week will be interesting - the team will leave on Tuesday after practice and not return until Saturday night. In the old days, we used to talk about the “Front Range” trip. This should be called the battle of the “Forts”. These are the two road games that really hurt last year and the Rebels cannot afford a repeat. The week presents an opportunity to head back up the rollercoaster that this conference season will undoubtedly be. Which CSU team will the Rebels face - the one that won at Wyoming or the one that was outscored 58-25 in the final 22 minutes at BYU (my guess is that it will be the former). Will UNLV be able to contain the European duo of Buljan and Ruzgas at Ft. Worth on Saturday? The key will be the guys seeing this week as a chance to accomplish something on the road in the conference and make a point - that the Utah game was a hiccup and not a symptom of something more serious. From my perspective, I think they understand that and will be ready to fight in the “Forts” this week.

Jan. 5, 2010

Back to tough as it gets...
I hope everyone had a great holiday. I have no doubt that 2010, encompassing both the rest of this season and the beginning of next season, will be tremendous for Runnin' Rebel basketball. But 2010 is starting with as tough a road as one can imagine in the MWC east of Maryland Parkway.
The trip to Hawaii was, all-in-all, a success. I was really impressed with the focus the guys had on the task at hand. They did not suffer any island fever and really were impressive against both SMU and Hawaii. The SC game was going to be a challenge from the start because they reminded me of a poor-man's K-State--solid, experienced backcourt play and lots of size and length up front. The team we played was not the same team that had been playing earlier that year and it showed. Also, Tre was not even close to 100%--his ankle hampered him on both ends and it really cost the team. The good thing is that this UNLV team has shown thus far that they grow from adversity, rather than being pulled apart by it--especially good because of how tough the conference is going to be this year.
For the first time in quite a while, the conference has had three different teams in the top 25==and the Rebels get the two currently ranked squads on the road to start the year. The MWC, statistically, is the toughest road conference in the country, with road teams, on average, winning only about 32% of the time. I was talking with Doug Gottlieb in Hawaii and he brought this up. He said that the Mountain West was "ridiculous" for road teams...whatever adjective you choose, any road win in the conference is a good one. We all know how tough it is for road teams to win in Provo, Albuquerque, San Diego and the T&M. For a while, Air Force was no picnic and they will still play hard in that little arena. Utah, no matter their early struggles, will pose a challenge in SLC. But don't discount the Cowboys in Laramie, or, as the Rebels found out last season, home teams in Ft. Collins or Ft. Worth. I think TCU is going to beat some people at home this season.
This week is important for the Rebels in many ways--obviously, getting a W at either spot would be huge. But also, getting the guys who haven't experienced the road in the MWC their first taste, and seeing how they react, will be critical in the long run. Sink or swim, it all gets started this week. Talk about getting thrown in the deep end....

Dec. 14, 2009

All sounds that we thought we heard on Saturday. The Rebels early season flight hitting the ground-hard; the balloon popping--all the air escaping....

Yes, the team got smacked, repeatedly by a very good Kansas State team that played a terrific game. Yes, for the first time this season, the team did not battle back from adversity and pull out a win. But let's understand what happened and why. First, K-State was a very difficult matchup for UNLV--longer and bigger up front--just as quick and talented in the starting backcourt, defensive-minded and almost as deep. As a result, the Rebels could not capitalize on the things that got them to 7-0. It is absolutely true that the team did not respond well this time, especially early in the second half when, for the first time all season, they looked flustered and turned the ball over repeatedly. When you add in the fact that the Wildcats shot 58 percent from the field, 61 percent from 3 and Jacob Pullen would have hit jumpers from a room in the Orleans Hotel,  New Orleans or Orleans, France, and the game was over. The better team on Saturday won.

The key is what the team takes away from the game. The coaches can, and did, tell the players over and over again how long, physical, etc.  K-State was going to be. But until they experienced it, I'm guessing the team didn't fully appreciate what they were dealing with. They must learn from that. I think they will also learn how they can attack a team like that (although I don't see anything like the Wildcats on the schedule, maybe SDSU gets closest)--that patience and ball movement are keys.

The team was really upset by the loss--and more so by the failure to battle back. But there was no finger-pointing. Just a sober understanding, as Coach has said all along, that they have a lot of work to do. There will, most likely, be other losses (hopefully, very few). But in terms of learning what needs to happen for this team to succeed in conference play and beyond, none will be as important as this one.

No one associated with UNLV basketball was in a good mood on Saturday evening. It is one of the great and infuriating things about college basketball that fans travel up and down the emotional roller-coaster every game, all season long. But keep in mind-if you had been told back in October that the team was going to start 7-1--wouldn't you have been thrilled? Come on out on Thursday and Saturday nights when the team is back at the T&M. See what progress this team is making. Yell, scream, etc. It'll make you feel better. 

Dec. 7, 2009

What a week! The Runnin’ Rebels playing as a ranked team in December for the first time in 17 years, on the road, in two places they had not had a ton of success (albeit in the ‘70’s at Santa Clara)—and two W’s…add in double OT at Arizona, a fired-up WCC team looking to pull off an upset and our pilot taking a mulligan on the landing during our flight back from Santa Clara—it was indeed quite a week.

We were all interested in seeing how this team would react to being ranked; going on the road, etc….the trip to Tucson was enlightening. The guys really seem to get along well. Like any group, there are diverse personalities, etc., but there also seems to be a developing sense of camaraderie and team. Whether it is Derrick or Chop leading vocally, or Tre and Oscar leading by example, these guys seem to understand that the only way to succeed is for all to be pulling on the same end of the rope. You saw that at Arizona, against a very young, talented team that plays hard (not sure anyone is going to want to play those guys in 2 years), and at Santa Clara, where, for the first time, I think the Rebels might have been a bit overconfident. UNLV is good, very good at times, but like most teams, they are not very good when they are being outworked. And that is what happened in the first half at the Leavey Center. The encouraging thing was that the team pulled together behind its leaders and got the job done, barely…

I am continually impressed by the way Coach Kruger knows how to handle kids, individually or as a group. During both games, there were occasions when he was clearly frustrated, even angry. He got on the guys pretty good, especially early in the Arizona game. But he also appeared to use a more encouraging approach late in that game and especially in the overtimes--same thing at Santa Clara. He could have very easily ripped the team during the first half—by far their poorest performance thus far. Some head coaches would have gone absolutely nuts. But instead, he talked to them like men, explained what they needed to do, both generally in terms of effort and specifically in terms of x’s and o’s—and it paid off with the Runnin’ Rebels second consecutive road win.

Obviously, Tre was incredible during the second half of both games. Obviously, the team can’t continue to rely on just him time and time again. The competition improves this weekend against K-State. You know the teams in the conference are really starting to look forward to knocking the ranked UNLV Runnin’ Rebels off. The encouraging thing is that these guys are 7-0 and can get a lot better. They will have to.

Dec. 1, 2009

A November to remember indeed! Obviously, it has been a tremendous start to the season, capped by Saturday’s win over Louisville. Today, the Runnin’ Rebels returned to the national top 25. The great start to the season will help the team’s confidence and growth; will boost recruiting and just plain makes everyone associated with the program feel good.

The Louisville game was important for so many reasons. First, the home crowd was awesome. I travel to a lot of arenas—the T&M has become one of the true nightmare spots for visiting teams. The way the crowd got behind the team when Louisville tied the game was critical to the win. The guys responded to the coaches’ exhortations to work hard from the tip. They attacked Louisville from the outset and attacked effectively and under control. Maybe most importantly, they responded to Louisville’s big second-half run just as one would hope—with poise, energy and confidence. It was great to see.

Individually, Oscar was so solid handling the basketball the majority of the time against the pressure. He really is becoming a leader on this team. Having outlets like Derrick, Chace and even one of the bigs to get the ball to at mid-court helped tremendously. Darris had, by far, his best game as a Runnin’ Rebel. He has a chance to be a real impact player in certain situations this year. The kids, Anthony and Justin, played beyond their years again—Justin knocked down a big 3 early and Anthony was on the floor throughout the critical last 4-5 minutes. Coach Kruger obviously has a great deal of confidence in both of them. Yes, the Rebels went arctic cold from three for the last two-thirds of the game. But unlike other Rebel teams, the shots they were taking were not forced, not rushed. They were, except for one that I can remember, all good looks, all in the context of the offense. They will fall more consistently.

The coaches did a tremendous job preparing the Rebels for the game and, more importantly, for the season. The players have responded. Now, comes the next test—a tough road game against a good, athletic and pretty big Arizona team. Remember what I said about the T&M being a nightmare for visiting teams? Well, there is a reason that winning on the road in college basketball is so tough. This is still a very young Runnin’ Rebel team that has yet to pass that test. Winning the game is the ultimate goal, but not far behind is learning about playing on the road—the routine, the travel, unfamiliar and hostile environment—all things this team needs to get used to before January. Because the Rebels start MWC play with back-to-back road games at the two toughest spots east of Maryland Parkway in the league—BYU and The Pit. And regardless of what happens in Tucson, the Orleans or Honolulu, you can bet that the Rebel’s performance in November has caught the attention of the folks all around the Mountain West Conference. The team needs to keep getting better---the good thing is that they know it.

Nov. 20, 2009

En Garde! It is a French phrase used in fencing that means, in essence, Get Ready! In Las Vegas, we might want to change it to En Guard, meaning you better look out or someone is going to drive past you on the way to the basket!

We all knew that Derrick Jasper was a special player, and he again showed flashes against Reno. We suspected that Oscar Bellfield had a bright future and was going to get better and more consistent over time. I’m not sure that anyone (besides Coach Kruger and his staff) knew how good Justin Hawkins and Anthony Marshall were. Yes, they are still freshman and there will be times this season (most likely on the road in conference play) when they will play like freshman, but so far…wow. Poise, toughness, smarts—as Coach Kruger said on the post-game show, “Just really good basketball players.” Add in the toughness and enthusiasm of Chop, who is not going to let one second of his senior, and only, season as a Runnin’ Rebel go to waste, and the maturing skills of Kendall Wallace—it is hard not to get excited.

The team is beginning to come together—the three bigs are clearly beginning to settle into their roles and will continue to improve. Darris is playing much more aggressively coming off the bench. Matt is still rusty. He is still thinking too much when he gets the ball and not just relying on his basketball instincts. He will come around. Chace is still not 100%--look out when that improves.  The team will have an inside presence this year.

The next week and a half will be tough. Southern Illinois comes out of the Missouri Valley Conference, a very good hoops league, and must not be overlooked. Holy Cross is picked to win the Patriot League and the Rebels had better not be peeking ahead at Louisville.

That brings up scheduling. Every year, teams from the Mountain West Conference are challenged when RPI and at-large NCAA bids are being discussed. Yes, it is way, way too early to begin thinking about March in earnest yet. However, the non-conference scheduling by some teams around the conference makes it appropriate to discuss at this time. Teams like Air Force (style of play) and Wyoming (no team wants to go to Laramie to play, even on a 2-for-1 basis) have a difficult time finding quality non-conference opponents to schedule. BYU plays Arizona State and Arizona this year and usually has a decent non-conference schedule. Utah holds up its end, with Illinois, Michigan and Oklahoma on the schedule. Coach Kruger has been a leading advocate of changing this situation. Until other teams follow his lead, this could continue to weigh down the conference.

Hope to see you at the T&M over the next week. The games against the Salukis and Holy Cross should be terrific. It will be interesting to see how this group continues to grow together. Have a great Thanksgiving!

Nov. 12, 2009

"Played terribly"; "Didn't do what the coaches said"; "Didn't play hard"; "Didn't get after the boards"; "Didn't dictate tempo"

Comments heard from fans after the Washburn game? Criticism from Coach Kruger or the media....?  No--these were some of the comments I heard from the players themselves. And that's why the Rebels' performance in the exhibition game doesn't make me overly concerned. Of course it would have been nice to see a Rebel team firing on all cylinders, knocking down shots from everywhere, smothering an inferior opponent defensively all over the court, etc. But it probably also would have been unreasonable to expect all of that to happen. Too many new pieces to the puzzle to fit together smoothly right from the start--not an excuse, just a fact.

Some observations from the game itself:

-    The interior play could be a concern. Darris and Brice had early foul trouble and didn't perform on the boards and Matt is clearly rusty coming off a serious knee injury and a long layoff. The team needs solid contributions from all three and they know it.

-    Chace and Derrick are absolutely legit. Yes, it was a D-II opponent, but Stanback clearly decided he was going to crank it up and lead the team in the second half. Derrick's athleticism was on display with that dunk and the defensive play late--where he intercepted a breakaway pass with his "belt buckle". Keep in mind that this was the first game action either had seen in over a year.

-    It is going to be a lot of fun watching the two freshmen, Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins, for the next four years. Hawkins was by far the most poised player on the floor in the first half and Anthony has the ability and willingness to contribute in a variety of ways.

-    Oscar is growing up, fast. You can see it in the way he carries himself and the way his teammates treat him.

-    Making shots=energy; missing shots=frustration. We all know this shouldn't be, but it is. If the Rebels had knocked down some of their early looks, I think the game would have looked entirely different. I think the early shooting woes really surprised the guys and caused them to play much more tentatively.

-    "PLAY BASKETBALL"--Coach Kruger talked about this. He wants the players to understand not only what they are supposed to do, but the underlying reasons, so that they can anticipate and adjust at both ends during the game. The key will be seeing how they are able to do this better in upcoming games.

Being a true fan of a team can be one of the most rewarding, and frustrating, things in life. Your emotions ride a roller coaster being driven by 18-year olds.... Don't get too concerned--the guys get it--that is the best thing I saw.

Nov. 3, 2009

It seems that every year at this time we all have the same feelings--excitement about returning players, anticipation about new talent, questions about size and chemistry, expectations about results....What all of this reflects is the passion the Runnin' Rebel fans have about their team. I love it and I try to do my best to give that passion a voice. Through this column, I hope that I can also provide you with some special insights into the Runnin' Rebels.

Here are some very early observations:

This group is, by far, the most athletic and deepest the Runnin' Rebels have had in a very long time...Coach Kruger will have multiple options at every position early on. For that reason, try not to get too caught up on early season lineups and substitution patterns--it is going to take a bit to sort all of this talent out.

Don't get too concerned with the bigs--with Darris (who looks terrific so far), Matt (healthy and becoming a leader), Brice (looks like he spent the summer at a health spa--in great shape) and Carlos (tremendous basketball instincts), the Rebels have a ton of possibilities at the 4 and 5...but they will all have to be a part of the pressure, up-tempo style that the coaches are emphasizing.

The Rebels lost a ton of senior production--Wink, Rene, Joe and Mo, regardless of your feelings about how things finished up last year, were tremendous contributors to the program. Replacing them won't be easy or done quickly--but the pieces are undoubtedly in place to do so.

Tempo, Tempo, Tempo--everything at practice is about pressure and pace--hard and fast. I think the coaching staff is excited about the athleticism of this group and is going to take advantage of it at both ends of the floor. As a result, I don't think this team will struggle to find its identity.

Patience--sometimes it doesn't mix too well with all of the passion mentioned earlier, but it might be wise to exercise some. Yes the Rebels are talented and athletic. But they are young and relatively inexperienced. Although the schedule is, as usual, heavy on home games early, SIU, UNR and K-State are all quality opponents and Louisville will be very talented and looking for payback...The early MWC schedule is brutal--but more about that in a future column....

One last thing--we will all miss Gondo. He led the league in passion for Rebel Basketball. But having another Runnin' Rebel legend like Robert Smith moving into the analyst chair is a tremendous plus. He knows the game as well as anyone, he knows the program, he knows the conference--please give Robert time to get used to the job (it is not as easy as one might think)--I know you will enjoy his work.
Talk to you again next week...

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