UNLV appears on the verge of turning conventional wisdom on its head for the second consecutive season.
Senior leadership supposedly prevents late-season tailspins, but the presence of three senior starters couldn't stop the Rebels from falling out of NCAA tournament contention last season. This year UNLV is putting to rest the notion that teams relying on transfers or newcomers are bound to have chemistry problems.
UNLV (18-4 overall, 6-2 in the Mountain West) is in the thick of the Mountain West Conference race with a roster heavy on transfers. The Rebels can forge a tie for first place in the league standings Saturday when they plays host to MWC leader BYU (21-2, 7-1).
This UNLV team may lack the experience of last season's group, but junior guard Tre'Von Willis insists the Rebels have better leadership this time around.
"You would think that's weird because last year's team had all the seniors and the guys who had gotten to the tournament," Willis said.
So what was the problem last season?
"We weren't really focused," Willis said. "We didn't really have any goals and things like that."
That's not a problem anymore. UNLV has plenty of players eager to make the most of a fresh start.
UNLV's roster features five players who began their careers at other Division I schools, as well as two junior college transfers. That list doesn't include 6-foot-8 forward Quintrell Thomas, a Kansas transfer who won't be eligible to play for the Rebels until next season. Three of UNLV's transfers have started the majority of the Rebels' games.
"We all came from programs where we weren't really happy or satisfied," said sophomore swingman Chace Stanback, who began his career at UCLA. "We wanted to come together and develop a great team here."
• Guard Derrick Jasper struggled with an injured left knee as a sophomore at Kentucky, and that prevented him from showcasing his athleticism. He moved on to UNLV and did a nice job of running the offense before hurting the knee again last week.
• Stanback arrived at UCLA as the No. 69 prospect in the 2007 recruiting class, but he struggled to earn playing time for a Final Four team and eventually decided to play elsewhere. He now is the Rebels' top rebounder (5.4) and second-leading scorer (10.5).
• Willis averaged just 6.1 minutes per game in his lone season at Memphis. He ranked second on the team in scoring in his debut season at UNLV last year and now leads the Rebels with 17.2 points per game.
UNLV coach Lon Kruger didn't have a problem pursuing so many transfers because he already had gotten to know them long before they decided to leave their original schools.
"Almost all of them are guys we recruited initially out of high school," Kruger said. "We'd developed that relationship early on, so when they called later and inquired about coming back, we had a pretty good idea of what they were about."
Having so many transfers on one team might not seem like a formula for success. The only transfers on the Rebels' roster who played last season are Willis and reserve forward Darris Santee, who arrived at UNLV after helping Midland (Texas) College win the 2007 National Junior College Athletic Association championship.
UNLV had to replace three of its top four scorers and rebounders from last season. With so many newcomers on the roster, the Rebels seemed likely to have chemistry issues early. Instead of using that as an excuse, they worked particularly hard in the offseason to rectify that potential problem.
Second time around
UNLV has surged into Mountain West Conference title contention with a roster that features several players who began their college careers elsewhere. This list doesn't include 6-8 forward Quintrell Thomas, a former Kansas player sitting out this season under NCAA transfer rules.
The buzz: After ranking second on the team in scoring (11.4) last season, Willis ranks second in the MWC this season at 17.2 points per game. He also averages 4.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game.
Even though NCAA transfer rules prevented Jasper, Stanback and reserve guard Steve Jones (an Arizona State transfer) from playing for the Rebels last season, they still were free to practice with the team. They spent the time getting to know their new teammates on and off the floor.
The Rebels then spent the offseason playing spirited pickup games that helped them learn even more about one another.
"It wasn't the normal open gym where you just try to come down and score every time," Willis said. "We wanted to get something out of our open gyms. We wanted to get chemistry and know what our teammates can and can't do. It helped us a lot."
The evidence is in UNLV's record. UNLV won its first seven games and has emerged as a legitimate MWC title contender while showing the characteristic signs of a disciplined team.
The Rebels lead the MWC in turnover margin (plus-4.41) and rank behind only BYU in assist-turnover ratio (1.4-1) and field-goal percentage defense (.395). UNLV also is 8-1 on the road, a marked change for a team that went 2-6 in conference road games last season.
UNLV could struggle to maintain its momentum without Jasper, who sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee last week and might not return until the end of the regular season. Although Jasper has averaged just 6.7 points per game, his versatility has helped UNLV play solid defense and take care of the ball.
The Rebels whipped Wyoming 78-50 Wednesday in their first full game without Jasper, but they face a much bigger test Saturday. Jasper's absence could make it difficult for UNLV to match up against a BYU backcourt that features All-America candidate and MWC scoring leader Jimmer Fredette.
"We really can't replace a guy like him, but I feel we've got players who can step up each and every night," Stanback said. "Whether it's a guard or a big man, it doesn't matter who it is. Derrick really brought a lot to the team with rebounding, his defensive presence and getting us in the flow of the offense."
But the arrival of all those reinforcements from other major college programs might have given UNLV enough depth to withstand the loss of Jasper.
UNLV's performance certainly casts doubt on the notion that a team can't succeed by relying so heavily on transfers.
"They do get the year to practice and work on individual skill development and get ingrained with the program," Kruger said. "There are a lot of positives to it, if they make the decision for all the right reasons."