Photo Credit: Athletic

FSM Preview- 2021 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels – Backcourt



The final installment of the FSM UNLV Runnin’ Rebels preview is the backcourt. As any avid college basketball fan knows, solid guard play is what drives the bus when it comes to March Madness. Che Jones breaks down the 2021/22 Runnin’ Rebels backcourt.


Photo Credit: UNLV Athletics

As any die-hard Runnin Rebel fan will attest, the elite teams at UNLV have always had DOMINANT guard play. Robert Smith and Reggie Theus in the 70s, Freddie Banks and Gerald Paddio in the 80s, or Greg Anthony and Anderson Hunt in the 90s.

Those teams of Rebel lore displayed some of the best frontcourt players in Rebel history (Glen Gondrezick, Armon Gilliam, Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, etc.). However, their success would hinge on the ability of their guards to run the offense efficiently and stretch defenses with their ability to knock down open three-pointers.

The world-famous run-n-gun style of Jerry Tarkanian’s teams was contingent upon guards that could push the ball in transition, finish at the rim, or knock down shots from distance. Over the years, the Rebels’ rosters have often possessed two such players.


Now that it looks as though first-year head coach Kevin Kruger has settled the frontcourt issues that have plagued the Rebels in years past, the next concern for Kruger and his staff was establishing and developing a strong backcourt.


Photo Credit: UNLV Basketball

If the NCAA tournament is the finish line, returning leading scorer Bryce Hamilton is indeed a great place to start. But, unlike LAST season, the outlook for THIS season is that success at UNLV will not begin or end with Hamilton.

With so many new faces around him, Hamilton says that he doesn’t feel like HE is the new guy; he feels as though this is still UNLV basketball and the familiarity of his coach’s faces makes this his Runnin Rebel family.

This feels like my family! Although there are so many new guys, I feel like these are MY guys! And the coaches are back, so it makes me feel very comfortable. I’m just very happy to be a Rebel.” Hamilton told me after practice.

Hamilton being all-in is essential to the backcourt success of this new look Rebel team. A “1-foot in-1 foot out” approach would prove detrimental to the overall success of not only this upcoming season but ultimately to The Kruger Era Part II. Hamilton’s return and buy-in into Kruger’s way of doing things will permeate much further for the Rebels than just the 3-point line.

UNLV has a combination of savvy, veteran guards such as Michael Nuga and Jordan McCabe and young impressionable guards like freshman Keshon Gilbert or junior college transfers Josh Baker and Cameron Burist. Now more than ever, Hamilton needs to lead the way. However, the talent around him will require him to lead less by example and more by experience.


After attending Rebel practices, there are two things that stand out.


Photo Credit: Mountain West Connection

First, the energy level is higher than we’ve seen in recent years. Second is the level of swagger that this team brings to the floor, and there is one guy in particular that brings it to every drill… that’s Michael Nuga. The Kent State transfer is an aggressive, strong, vocal player cut from the same cloth as JermaineSunshineSmith (UNLV’ 97).

Nuga will be an energy guy that demands respect from teammates and opponents alike with his hard-nosed style of play. If he can knock down shots from the perimeter coupled with his defensive ability, he will majorly contribute to the Rebels in the Mountain West Conference.

No stranger to the Mountain West is the 2021 MWC honorable mention selection, Justin Webster. The junior transfer from Hawaii was a double-digit scorer last season and is a confident shooter that can stretch the defense and is a proven zone-buster. Webster has steadily improved his ability to put the ball on the deck and will slowly but surely wear defenders down with his steady pace on both ends of the floor.

Kruger will have at his disposal a guard in Jordan McCabe that possesses the ability to break down defenders with his ballhandling skills and can flat-out shoot the rock. McCabe, the West Virginia transfer and self-proclaimed “unathletic kid from a small town,” has swag on a million! A 29-game starter for the Mountaineers, he’s another tough, hard-nosed guard that will more often, than not, step up to the challenge. McCabe can push and pass the ball well, all while playing with a high motor. Think Mark Dickel (UNLV,’ 00) with more offensive tools.


Very few Division-I basketball programs have had the history of success with Junior College transfers that UNLV has had.


Photo Credit: 24/7 Sports

In fact, the greatest Rebel basketball player of all time, Larry Johnson, once endured the treacherous lifestyle of a JUCO athlete by way of Odessa Junior College in Texas. When JUCO transfers were considered a serious risk, Tarkanian perused the JUCO ranks to insure himself of players that were a combination of hunger, talent, and maturity. Whereas JUCO transfers came with certain academic risks, Tark had more success than failure and paved the way for many high major programs to incur said risk.

Today’s version of the Runnin’ Rebels is beginning to mirror those of Rebels past in more ways than one. One way, in particular, is JUCO transfers. This Rebels version offers two such transfers in 6-4 guard Josh Baker and 6-3 guard Cameron Burist. Baker is an athletic “3 & D” wing from Hutchinson Community College in Kansas by way of McClintock High School in nearby Tempe, AZ.

Baker was an All-Jayhawk Conference selection twice before signing with the Rebels and will provide a confident offensive spark that can knock down the three as well as get up into players on the defensive end. Burist is a hard-working local guard from Liberty High School by way of Mesa Community College. Burist and Baker will add depth as they slowly acclimate to the collegiate level.

A wide-eyed Baker expressed that the entire experience so far has been surreal and is ecstatic to be at UNLV. Although he is excited to be playing at the Division-I level, he has also locked in and competed impressively and is a noticeable presence on the floor. “The biggest adjustment for me from the JUCO level is the speed. The game moves faster, and the players are quicker“, Baker said.


The other natural point guard on the roster is Las Vegas local Marvin Coleman.


Photo Credit: UNLV Athletics

Coleman, a team captain last season, is from Foothill High School and was last season’s assist leader. Unfortunately, he was forced to sit out the remainder of last season after suffering a stress fracture in his right leg. However, Coleman is a hard worker and worked his way up the ranks from a walk-on to a scholarship and eventually recorded the first triple-double in over 20 years against New Mexico in the 2019-20 season.

A leader on UNLV’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, Coleman serves as secretary and has excelled academically by being selected to the Academic All-Mountain West team and earning the Mountain West’s Scholar-Athlete Award twice by obtaining a 3.5-grade point average.

Coleman isn’t the only local player on the roster. He’s joined by fellow Las Vegan Trey Hurlburt from Coronado. Hurlburt is a bona fide gym rat who pushes the Rebel guards by stretching the defense with his shooting ability and understanding what the Rebel coaching staff expects daily. The 5-11 guard has worked his way into a roster spot and the hearts of his teammates. Hard workers like Hurlburt are not easy to find.

One anomaly amongst an experienced veteran roster is freshman (yes, I said freshman) Keshon Gilbert! Gilbert has a high octane, defensive presence. For example, when attending a UNLV practice, one might see Gilbert pressuring the ball in one instance and then jumping a passing lane in the next and deflecting a ball. Likewise, Gilbert will pressure Hamilton or Nuga in one drill, and then the next moment, he’s picking up McCabe in full-court 5-on-5 action.

The Las Vegas native (via Vashon High School in St. Louis) is slowly but surely developing his offensive skills and understanding the depth at the guard spots. So, for now, the 6-3 lanky freshman will accrue minutes as a pesky presence on the defensive end.


Whereas Gardner-Webb won’t provide much of a challenge for the Rebels either defensively nor offensively in their opening contest tonight, the California Bears should provide more resistance to better gauge the upcoming 2021-22 season on November 13th. Both games are at the Thomas & Mack Center.


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-Che Jones – Franchise Sports Media

Follow Che on Twitter @CoachCheJones


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