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UNLV Basketball: Emergence of Lopez likely the difference between good and great

The emergence of freshman big man Carlos Lopez could make a very good UNLV team even better.
The emergence of freshman big man Carlos Lopez could make a very good UNLV team even better.Getty Images

One of the few conclusions that can be reached just three games into a season is that three games isn't nearly enough time to reach any conclusions.

Here goes anyway.

UNLV will have a good basketball team this season. Strike that. UNLV will have a very good basketball team this season.

The Rebels will perform well in the non-conference portion of their schedule. In fact, they'll likely crack the top 25 sooner rather than later.

They'll challenge for the Mountain West regular season title, and -- as has often been the case -- they'll probably be favored to win the conference tournament on their home court come March.

Given the team's depth and experience, it seems a near certainty that the Rebels will surpass last season's win total of 25. And it would frankly be shocking if this team doesn't outdo last year's squad in terms of its performance in the NCAA Tournament.

The Rebels will be good...very good.

The question is though...can they be great?

The answer to that question may ultimately be answered by one of the least experienced players on the roster.

Redshirt freshman Carlos Lopez, though just three games into his college hoops career, has already showed signs that he could develop into a major difference maker this season for the Runnin' Rebels.

Under coach Lon Kruger, the Rebels greatest strength has always been in its guard play. If any one weakness has kept Kruger's UNLV teams from taking the next step -- like winning a Mountain West Conference regular season title --it's been the lack of a strong inside presence on both ends of the court.

In the 6'-11" Lopez, the Rebels may have finally found that presence.

More so than frontcourt mates Brice Massamba and Quintrell Thomas, Lopez appears to possess that rare combination of size, skill, and athleticism to one day become a dominant big man at the college level.

Dominant this year surely is asking way too much. However, if Lopez --considered by some to still be a project heading into the season -- can manage to exceed expectations, the Rebels too might wind up being even better than advertised.

Against the likes of UC Riverside and Southeastern Louisiana, the Rebels could afford to play Quintrell Thomas -- a natural power forward -- at the center spot. Against a big and physical Wisconsin team, however, it quickly became apparent that the player best equipped to man the 5-spot was Lopez.

In 21 minutes against the Badgers on Saturday, Lopez scored 5 points, grabbed 5 rebounds, and blocked a pair of shots in the Rebels 68-65 win. The fiery Lopez even collected a technical foul against the Badgers after landing an elbow on Wisconsin forward Mike Bruesewitz.

It's that competitive streak that will likely prevent Lopez from ever being labeled as "soft."

Though his upside is unmistakable, Lopez has had his share of freshman moments. Despite averaging a team leading 3 blocks per game, Lopez has been beaten on the defensive end on a handful of occassions. Lopez also appears -- early on at least -- to still be playing his way into game shape.

As his feel for the college game, as well as his fitness, continues to play catch up with his considerable talent, a breakout game appears to be inevitable for the native of Lajas, Puerto Rico.

It'll likely require a breakout season from Lopez, though, if the Rebels hope to make the jump from very good to great.

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