This always figured to be a transition season for first-year UNLV coach T.J. Otzelberger, and the early games have had their share of growing pains from blown leads to a starting guard’s hand injury that doesn’t seem to go away.
And now the Rebels have the task of vacating the Thomas & Mack Center while the National Finals Rodeo moves in for its annual run, meaning UNLV won’t play another home game until Dec. 18 against Pacific.
The presence of other arenas has allowed the Rebels to remain in Las Vegas for some of those games in recent seasons and play at neutral sites, but all three games on this trip are out of town. UNLV (3-5) plays at Cincinnati (4-2) at 4 p.m. Saturday, its Mountain West opener at Fresno State on Wednesday and against Brigham Young in Salt Lake City on Dec. 7.
Cincinnati (No. 49) and BYU (No. 62) are top 100 teams, according to the Kenpom rankings. Fresno State is No. 116.
That presents quite a challenge for a UNLV team that is No. 167, meaning unless the Rebels pull off an upset, they will return home at 3-8 and a guaranteed losing record before conference play opens full time New Year’s Day against Utah State.
“I think it’s a good challenge for us,” forward Nick Blair said. “(It’s) another chance for us to step up to the plate and see what we’re made of.”
The return of guard Jonah Antonio would help, but his status is murky. Antonio has missed the past three games with a left hand injury, and defenses have been able to lock down inside without the threat of his outside shooting.
Getting back Antonio, who is shooting 35.7 percent from 3-point range, wouldn’t be a cure-all, but his presence would give the Rebels a badly needed offensive threat for a team averaging 68.5 points, third-lowest in the conference.
“I don’t want him to play until he’s 100 percent,” Otzelberger said. “His health and his safety is the most important thing.
“It really has been day to day. I’m not trying to shirk the question or dodge. We’re hopeful to have him back before we have that break on the 18th, but right now whether that happens or not, I just don’t have the answer.”
UNLV enters this road trip off an 80-57 victory over Jackson State that was close until the final eight minutes. The Rebels had lost five of six games before then.
They usually would be playing only nonconference games at this point, but a construction convention in March prompted the Mountain West to move up its league tournament by a week. Ten of the 11 teams are playing two conference teams, but UNLV plays just one.
Still, having to prepare for even one conference team in early December is an adjustment.
“Usually when you’re playing a conference team, you’ve got more time to prepare,” guard Amauri Hardy said. “You get to see a lot more film on them. So it’s one of these games we’ve got to treat as a nonconference game. It’s a quick turnaround. We’ve been put in the position where we’ve been doing that, so if we can (prepare quickly), we will put ourselves in the best position to get a win.”
Who: UNLV at Cincinnati
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Fifth Third Arena, Cincinnati
TV/Radio: ESPN3 (online stream); KWWN (1100 AM, 100.9 FM)
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Coach: T.J. Otzelberger (3-5, first season)
Coach: John Brannen (4-2, first season)