- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Or is UC Santa Barbara that good?
Because that is the best chance you have, if you're a UNLV fan, of explaining away the Rebels' ugly 3-3 start -- one made uglier by the fact that all six games were played in the Thomas & Mack Center. You can excuse the loss to Jahii Carson and Arizona State on a night, Nov. 19, when Carson scorched Vegas for 40 points. You might even be feeling generous, or at least benevolent, in your willingness to overlook a 61-59 loss to Illinois that was still a 50-50 proposition until the closing moments.
But most UNLV fans would find it much harder to see the UCSB game on their record -- an 86-65 Nov. 12 loss at home -- and find a convincing explanation for it. The Gauchos' three losses, to Utah State, Colorado and UCLA, are all eminently respectable. Bob Williams' team is not bad by any means.
UNLV may very well be.
At the very least, it is not a good offensive basketball team; that much is obvious to date. Whatever strength UNLV has derived from the interior defense of Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith -- the Rebels allow just 40.8 percent shooting from 2-point range, have held opponents one of the lowest effective field goal rates (42.2 percent in the country) and rarely commit fouls -- they have almost immediately squandered on offense. Even with blowouts of Portland State and Tennessee-Martin on their résumé, the Rebels' offense is averaging .99 points per possession thus far -- good for 265th nationally. They aren't really good at anything, save for getting up and down the floor and (occasionally) grabbing their own misses. They don't shoot it particularly well, they turn it over too often, and they don't get to the free throw line. That's three of four factors, in case you were counting, where the Rebels are significantly below average. What's the point in Runnin'?
All of which makes this weekend's trip to Arizona on Saturday afternoon (ESPN2, 5:15 p.m. ET) so potentially fascinating. Note the hedge: It is just as likely, if UNLV submits a characteristically ugly offensive performance, that the Wildcats will grind Dave Rice's team to dust in the first five minutes of the game. Sean Miller's team is too good and too balanced and far better than UNLV even defensively, to say nothing of the gulf between offenses.
But there are not very many teams capable, from a sheer size perspective, of matching up with Arizona's dominant Aaron Gordon-Kaleb Tarczewski-Brandon Ashley trio up front, of keeping the Wildcats from getting easy points in the paint. UNLV may be one of those teams. In fact, "potentially interesting" seems like a fine place to leave this little mini-preview. I'm not sure Vegas can keep it close in Tucson. But if Rice is hoping for a turning point, what better time than Saturday?