UNLV’s nonleague schedule includes UNR, Cal, Illinois

Contrary to how it might appear, Dave Rice did not set up UNLV’s basketball schedule to almost certainly guarantee he would win his first game as coach.

The Rice era will begin with an opponent — Division II Grand Canyon — that was scheduled by former Rebels coach Lon Kruger. It’s not the grand entrance Rice might prefer, but he’s not complaining, either.

Rice was hired April 11 and inherited Kruger’s roster and most of his nonconference schedule for the 2011-12 season.

“We were fortunate when we took the job that Coach Kruger and his staff had a majority of the schedule done,” Rice said. “There are some really challenging games in our schedule.”

The first game won’t be the most challenging. The Rebels’ regular-season opener against Grand Canyon, a school from Phoenix, will be Nov. 11 at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Antelopes compete in the Pacific West Conference.

With the Mountain West Conference entering a realignment phase, reducing the league from nine teams to eight this season, UNLV will play 14 league games and 18 out of conference.

The Mountain West will announce its schedule this summer, but because the Thomas & Mack is unavailable, it’s a certainty the Rebels will open the conference season on the road Jan. 14.

The highlights of the nonconference lineup at the Thomas & Mack are games against UNR (Nov. 14), Texas-El Paso (Dec. 13) and California (Dec. 23).

The NCAA allows teams to play 27 regular-season games plus an exempt event that can include up to four games. UNLV will be part of a four-game exempt event, the Las Vegas Invitational, in November. The Rebels host Cal Poly and Morgan State in the first two rounds at the Thomas & Mack before facing Southern California and either North Carolina or South Carolina at the Orleans Arena.

While the National Finals Rodeo occupies the Thomas & Mack from late November to early December, the Rebels will play road games at UC Santa Barbara (Nov. 30), Wichita State (Dec. 4) and Wisconsin (Dec. 10).

Rice and assistant coach Heath Schroyer are still searching for an opponent Dec. 7 at the Orleans. Rice said a few options are being considered, including San Francisco.

UNLV gets a rematch with Illinois at the United Center in Chicago on Dec. 17. The Illini ended the Kruger era by beating the Rebels in the NCAA Tournament in March.

Illinois returns to play at the Thomas & Mack in 2013, the same season UNLV begins a four-year series with Arizona and resumes a series with Louisville. The Cardinals were set to visit Las Vegas this season, but coach Rick Pitino requested the game be pushed back.

With two Big Ten and two Pac-12 opponents, plus the possibility of playing North Carolina, Rice said the Rebels’ schedule strength should shape up well in terms of getting a possible at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

UNLV is expected to return four starters — seniors Oscar Bellfield and Chace Stanback and juniors Anthony Marshall and Quintrell Thomas.

“We have a lot of really tough road games. We’ve got a team that is experienced, and we need to play well on the road,” Rice said. “The quality of opponents we’ll play will help our strength of schedule and RPI going into conference play.

“It’s a unique opportunity for us to schedule 18 nonconference games, but this was real challenging to schedule the first two weeks of January. We have had a tough time trying to finish this schedule.”

The Rebels play Louisiana-Monroe (Dec. 19) and Central Arkansas (Dec. 28) at the Thomas & Mack before a New Year’s Eve date at Hawaii, an exempt trip that will allow the Rebels to play a 32nd game.

Rice said it has been an “impossible situation” to find quality opponents in early January, when most teams are beginning conference play.

He scheduled a game at independent Cal State Bakersfield, the alma mater of assistant coach Justin Hutson, for Jan. 5. The Roadrunners return to Las Vegas the following two years.

UNLV will play an opponent to be announced at the Thomas & Mack on Jan. 7. One possibility is Cal State San Marcos, a first-year NAIA program, but Rice said his options are still open.

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907.

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