Selfless Rebels prove it’s as good to give as it is to receive

It is one of those important basketball statistics most overlook, instead being enamored with points and rebounds and whatever lob-for-a-dunk highlight might make the nightly news.

Team assists.

Don’t get all wild and crazy at once.

UNLV ranks 11th today nationally and first among Mountain West Conference teams in assists with an average of 17.8 per game, as much a reason as any for its terrific start to the season.

There is no better sight than a team that is unselfish in its approach.

You can ask California how good the Rebels are at it.

This was blowout city. A mismatch. A clinic by UNLV in spacing the floor and finding the open man. The team many presume to be the Mountain West’s best ran the presumed best from the Pac-12 out of the Thomas & Mack Center on Friday.

UNLV beat Cal 85-68 in a game that was decided by a 20-minute first-half stretch by the Rebels that rivaled their performance after halftime against North Carolina back on Nov. 26.

It’s true the Golden Bears were forced to start four guards. It’s also true that the UNLV of the first half could have beaten anyone in the country.

“I told the team afterward that for about 35 of the 40 minutes, we were sensational,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “A good win against a quality team.”

Twenty-two assists on 34 baskets against Cal. Twenty assists on 25 baskets on Monday against Louisiana-Monroe. This is how well the Rebels have shared the ball in their last two wins, how willing whatever five players are on the court have been to making an extra pass.

It’s a better team than last year in most ways. The Rebels averaged 15.3 assists then and took far worse shots over the course of 40 minutes. They still take bad shots. Every team does. They still force things offensively at times and then lose focus defensively, as they did the final five or so minutes against Cal.

But not every team is this unselfish.

You can win a lot of ways in March. Sometimes, it’s all about having one guy carry you statistically. Sometimes, those which share the most advance the furthest.

What the Rebels have done in beating North Carolina and Illinois and now Cal is position themselves for a favorable NCAA Tournament seed, assuming they can win a regular-season conference title.

They haven’t accomplished that since 1999-00 and were co-champions then. They haven’t won an outright league title since 1991-92. Nothing is a given.

But the Rebels have managed a 13-2 start with depth and defense, with guys buying into concepts about spacing and passing and then shooting with confidence. The Rebels won’t be this good every night and definitely won’t shoot this well every night, but much like effort, the desire to play in a selfless manner never has to change for those willing.

You can always play hard. You can always pass up a good shot for someone else to take a better one.

“I like to say that is what our team is about, the agenda we try and play with as a group is that whoever is open gets the ball,” Rice said. “It could be our best shooter throwing to our worst shooter or our worst to our best. It doesn’t matter. We feel that over the course of a season, guys making the extra pass to guys shooting with confidence, we’re going to make more.

“It’s important for us to get ready for conference play. We have three (non-league) games remaining before a very hard game at San Diego State, a very good team.”

UNLV still must dismiss Central Arkansas at home Wednesday and Hawaii and Cal State Bakersfield on the road, whereas San Diego State (11-2) has home games against Redlands, San Diego Christian and Chicago State before the Rebels visit.

Combined, UNLV and the Aztecs should be 30-4 when things tip off in Viejas Arena on Jan. 14.

Monster. Conference. Opener.

“UNLV is better than San Diego State,” said Cal coach Mike Montgomery, whose team lost a road game to the Aztecs, 64-63. “They shoot it better than them. San Diego State runs a lot more (offensive) sets, but (UNLV) does a great job of spacing.

“These guys really share the ball.”

It’s an important and yet sometimes forgotten trait.

It, as much as anything, has No. 21 UNLV about to climb higher in the Top 25 rankings while playing some terrific basketball.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 3 to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday on “Monsters of the Midday,” Fox Sports Radio 920 AM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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