UNLV women’s basketball coach Kathy Olivier at first called this a rebuilding season, then, seconds later, said she expected her team to “go for it this year.”
In other words, be a factor in the Mountain West.
Her comment, though it sounds contradictory, actually makes sense. This is a rebuilding season, but the Lady Rebels — who open against Cal State Fullerton at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center — aren’t using inexperience as an excuse.
“We have to still have expectations, and we still want to do well,” Olivier said. “We have good athletes. We have people who are learning the system very fast. But a lot of teaching is going on right now.”
UNLV lost six seniors off the team that went 12-18 last season, including two-time first-team all-conference center Katie Powell and two-time honorable-mention and four-year starting point guard Nikki Wheatley.
Four players on this year’s team, picked to finish seventh in the Mountain West, have a combined 37 starts. Last season’s team had 232.
”I know we lost a lot of people,” junior 5-foot-9-inch guard Bailey Thomas said. “We brought in a lot of people, too, so I’m excited to see what the freshmen can show.”
The Lady Rebels signed a top-60 recruiting class that included Melanie Isbell, a 5-4 guard who went to Centennial High School. She was ranked the nation’s No. 27 point guard by ESPN.
“We have a lot of state championships over there, which is great,” Olivier said, nodding to the bench where many of those newcomers were sitting and standing. “Now can we translate it into conference championships at the Division I level? The game’s quicker. The game’s faster. The game’s stronger. They’re all understanding of that.
“Did they get that when they got here? No. So it’s been a process these last few weeks.”
Part of that process is meshing the newcomers with the returning players and trying to develop chemistry.
Thomas, who has 23 career starts, is by far UNLV’s most experienced player. One of three Centennial products on the team, Thomas made the conference all-defensive squad last season.
Also back is Mountain West Sixth Player of the Year in senior 6-2 center Rodjanae Wade, who averaged 8.1 points and 5.9 rebounds.
Wade is part of a front line that should be as imposing as any in the Mountain West — she is one of five players at least 6-2. Junior 6-5 center Katie Jackson is the tallest.
“It’s going to be a huge advantage,” Wade said. “You don’t usually come across that many tall girls on a team.”
UNLV, even with its inexperience, won’t be eased into this season.
The Lady Rebels play Duke on Thursday at the Thomas & Mack, at Southern California on Dec. 14 and against Virginia on Dec. 20 in the Duel in the Desert at Cox Pavilion. The Duke and USC matchups are return games.
“It’s real exciting to go out and show that the Lady Rebels aren’t backing down to anyone,” Wade said. “We’re going to put up our best fight.”
UNLV women’s basketball schedule
Nov. 9 — Cal State Fullerton, 4 p.m., Thomas & Mack Center
Nov. 14 — Duke, 5:30 p.m., Thomas & Mack Center
Nov. 19 — at Southern Utah, 5:30 p.m.
Nov. 23 — South Carolina State, 5:30 p.m.
Lady Rebel Round-Up
Nov. 30 — Elon, 11 a.m.
Dec. 1 — St. John’s or IUPUI, 11 a.m. or 1:30 p.m.
Dec. 3 — Fresno State*, 6 p.m.
Dec. 8 — Pepperdine, 2 p.m.
Dec. 14 — at Southern California, 7 p.m.
Dec. 16 — at Grand Canyon, 5 p.m.
Duel in the Desert
Dec. 20 — Virginia, 2 p.m.
Dec. 21 — Mississippi State or South Florida, noon or 12:30 p.m.
Jan. 1 — at Utah State*, 5:30 p.m.
Jan. 4 — at Air Force*, 1 p.m.
Jan. 8 — Boise State*, noon
Jan. 11 — Wyoming*, 3 p.m.
Jan. 15 — at San Jose State*, 7 p.m.
Jan. 18 — at New Mexico*, 1 p.m.
Jan. 22 — UNR*, 6 p.m.
Jan. 25 — at San Diego State*, 1 p.m.
Feb. 1 — Colorado State, 3 p.m.
Feb. 5 — Utah State, noon
Feb. 8 — at Fresno State, 2 p.m.
Feb. 12 — at UNR, 6:30 p.m.
Feb. 15 — New Mexico, 3 p.m.
Feb. 19 — at Colorado State, 6 p.m.
Feb. 22 — San Diego State, 3 p.m.
Feb. 24 — at Boise State, 6 p.m.
Feb. 27 — San Jose State, 6 p.m.
March 1-4 — Mountain West tournament, Thomas & Mack Center
All times Pacific. All home games at Cox Pavilion unless otherwise noted.