The six day trip, however, will provide Coach Dave Rice and his staff with an invaluable sneak preview of how well this deep and talented UNLV roster performs against outside competition.
The four game Canadian tour – which tips off this Saturday in Ottawa against a Carleton University Ravens squad fresh off a 77-75 exhibition win over the University of Buffalo on Tuesday – got underway on Thursday, for all intents and purposes, when the Runnin’ Rebels bid au revoir to Las Vegas, embarking on a 4-1/2 hour flight to Montreal, Quebec.
And though the trip up north offers the team both the opportunity to bond, as well as providing young men with memories they’ll likely carry with them for a lifetime, a number of intriguing storylines will accompany the Runnin’ Rebels as they take to the courts in Ottawa and Montreal.
Will a veteran big man rise to the occasion?
Though the Rebels’ tour of Canada should still prove to be a fun and fulfilling experience for the players, coaches, and fans who have made the trek up north, the trip has undoubtedly been diminished somewhat by the absence of the two Canadians on UNLV’s roster, freshman forward Anthony Bennett and sophomore shot blocker Khem Birch.
With newcomers Bennett and Birch unable to participate, however, an opportunity to impress, and to perhaps get a leg up in what could ultimately wind up being a competition for minutes in the Runnin’ Rebels’ regular season rotation, has opened up for veteran big men Quintrell Thomas and Carlos Lopez.
Last season, neither Thomas nor Lopez, surprisingly, were able to beat out Brice Massamba for the starting center spot in UNLV's lineup. This season, with McDonald’s All-Americans Bennett and Birch, as well as the ultra-athletic Demetris Morant, added to the mix, the bar has been raised tremendously in terms of the talent at the 4 and 5 spots.
If either Thomas or Lopez expect to be fixtures in the Runnin’ Rebels’ rotation this season – particularly once Birch becomes eligible in December – performing well in Canada is nothing short of a must.
Is Bryce Jones who we think he is?
In recent years, reports out of practices extolling the virtues of the latest and greatest redshirt transfer at UNLV could, at times, take on a tone normally reserved for tales of Bigfoot sightings.
First it was Chace Stanback being described as “the best player on the floor.” A couple of years later, reports of Mike Moser single handedly torching UNLV’s first team fast became the norm.
This, of course, brings us to the latest practice legend whose impact this season is expected to considerable and immediate. His name? Bryce Dejean-Jones.
Jones, who transferred to UNLV in 2011 following a tumultuous half-season at USC, could be the most gifted offensive player on the entire Runnin’ Rebels’ roster. His knack to score both inside and out, and his apparent willingness to take the big shot when needed, fills one of the team’s biggest voids from a season ago.
The question is…will the enormous promise Jones has shown in practice translate into the breakout season so many are expecting? These four games in Canada should, at the very least, provide a glimpse into what to expect out of Jones come November.
Which freshmen will impress?
As practices got underway earlier this month in preparation for the Runnin’ Rebels’ tour of Canada, only two of UNLV’s five incoming freshmen – Anthony Bennett and Katin Reinhardt – were left out of discussions regarding potential redshirt candidates.
During the practices and scrimmages leading up to Canada, however, UNLV’s other three freshmen – Daquan Cook, Demetris Morant, and Savon Goodman – all enjoyed their fair share of inspired play.
Given Goodman’s non-stop motor and his college ready body, coupled with the likelihood that UConn transfer Roscoe Smith will have to sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules, it now appears far more probable that the 6’-6” forward out of Philly will suit up for the Rebels this season.
The journey to Canada could prove to be an extremely telling one, however, for Cook and Morant. How these two youngsters perform against solid, college level competition, will go a long way in determining if a redshirt season is in the cards for them.
It's time for "Air Marshall" to start proving his point
After UNLV received a commitment from blue chip forward Anthony Bennett, the Runnin’ Rebels – for the first time since Jerry Tarkanian roamed the Thomas & Mack sidelines – suddenly found itself on the receiving end of Final Four buzz.
Much of the hype surrounding the new look Runnin’ Rebels centered on UNLV’s formidable frontline, which includes 5-star prospects Bennett and Birch as well as All-American candidate Mike Moser. If any one position, however, has been looked upon as a potential question mark, that position is point guard.
Anthony Marshall, starting in Canada, will look to dispel any notions that the point guard position will be an Achilles heel for UNLV.
Though Marshall will be without the services of elite finishers Bennett and Birch in Canada, the trip, nevertheless, will provide the senior leader with an early opportunity to direct the Runnin’ Rebel offense and to start proving to doubters that the point guard spot will, in fact, be strength this season.
Marshall & Hawkins' last stand
With last March’s NCAA Tournament loss to Colorado, seniors Oscar Bellfield and Brice Massamba saw their four year careers at UNLV end without having experienced a Runnin’ Rebel win during March Madness.
Rebel seniors Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins are looking to not only avoid going 0 for their careers in the NCAA Tournament at UNLV, they’re looking to finish with a bang.
Setting an early tone in Canada in August, and cementing their positions on the team as respected senior leaders, will be but the first strides in what the duo hopes will ultimately wind up being a deep tournament run in March.