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UNLV begins Mountain West play with something to prove

Updated December 27, 2022 - 9:44 am

UNLV senior guard Luis Rodriguez hasn’t forgotten where the Rebels were back in November. He remembers what other people, specifically around the Mountain West, thought of them at the time.

“We’ve got a chip on our shoulder,” he said.

UNLV begins Mountain West play this week, starting with a short road trip to play San Jose State at 7 p.m. Wednesday following a successful nonconference season.

They were one of the last undefeated teams in the country and suffered just one loss, a two-point defeat Dec. 17 against San Francisco. UNLV was about three minutes away from entering conference play with an unbeaten record.

“I think the nonconference did a good job preparing us for what’s to come,” Rodriguez said. “There’s a lot of hard work ahead, so we’ve just got to keep it day-by-day, never be content and just work. For everyone in the locker room, this is an exciting time.”

UNLV’s strong start is a bit of a surprise for the rest of the conference. The Rebels were picked to finish sixth during the preseason poll in mid-October, behind favorites San Diego State, Wyoming, reigning conference tournament champion Boise State, Colorado State and No. 22 New Mexico.

“We’ve seen the rankings, where they were going to place us in the conference,” Rodriguez said. “We know we haven’t done nothing yet, but we stay hungry.”

The conference will be a challenge for UNLV. The Rebels (11-1) haven’t played a particularly difficult nonconference schedule. An early win against a then-ranked Dayton team looks a bit hollow since the Flyers have fallen out of the AP poll.

UNLV’s Power Five wins against Minnesota and Washington State aren’t looking much better. Both teams sit in or near the cellar of the Big Ten and Pac-12, respectively, after two conference games.

The Rebels’ nonconference schedule is a far cry from the 2021-22 campaign, coach Kevin Kruger’s first year at the helm, when UNLV played Michigan and UCLA. Both programs were ranked No. 4 or better at the time.

But Kruger said he thinks this schedule has been a good mix of opponents with different playing styles. It’s also given the Rebels a chance to build momentum, gain confidence and learn the system instead of simply throwing them into the fire.

“We played a lot of teams who are similar to our conference,” Kruger said, “with a chip on their shoulder, maybe not as much attention as other teams.”

Kruger believes San Jose State (9-4) may optimize that underdog mindset. The Spartans were projected as the 10th-best team in the conference, only better than Air Force. They recently beat Santa Clara on the road but lost by 41 points against No. 9 Arkansas in its only game against a ranked opponent.

The Spartans represent the Rebels’ first opportunity to prove themselves against conference-level competition. It’s a chance to set the tone for the Mountain West season and send a message to the opponents who doubted them before they’d even played a game.

“We’re 11-1,” Rodriguez said, “but we know there’s more work to be done.”

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.

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