Is it UNLV's time to strike?

It's still far too early in the offseason to start projecting next fall with anything resembling meaning. But here are a few things we know about the UNLV Running Rebels:

  • They have a new coach, Dave Rice, a former UNLV great, 11-year UNLV staff member and former Utah State and BYU assistant coach who will be walking the sideline as a head coach for the first time this season.

  • They have much of 2010-11's solid NCAA tournament team returning.

  • Star guard Tre'Von Willis is not one of those returners.

  • Chace Stanback, UNLV's other primary scorer, is. But Stanback could miss at least a few games for a DUI arrest he racked up in late May.

  • The Mountain West will not be nearly as tough as it was in 2010-11.

That last point might be the most important of all.

Sure, how Rice handles Stanback's situation will be intriguing. And yeah, Rice will have to prove that he's capable of overseeing a program in his own right, which, for new head coaches, is always much easier said than done.

But the most salient piece of information about UNLV's impending season is how its conference gives the Rebels an almost immediate, de facto boost toward the top of the standings. Consider the offseason in the Mountain West. San Diego State lost four starters, three seniors and junior lottery pick Kawhi Leonard. Brigham Young waves farewell to national player of the year Jimmer Fredette, and also to the MWC; BYU will now play its hoops alongside Gonzaga and St. Mary's in the West Coast Conference. Colorado State, another nascent competitor in 2011, lost its two best players to graduation.

Only New Mexico, which returns former UCLA transfer Drew Gordon and impressive freshman point guard Kendall Williams -- and adds a solid batch of talent from the spring signing period -- appears poised to compete for top honors in the conference.

SDSU is rebuilding. BYU is gone. This thing is wide open.

It's hard not to see this as a benefit for the Rebels. UNLV frequently scheduled tough nonconference slates under Kruger, and that isn't going to change in 2011-12; the Rebels will have games against USC, vs. North Carolina (or South Carolina), vs. Wichita State, at Wisconsin and vs. Illinois in Chicago's United Center, among others. In other words, UNLV doesn't have to worry about skating through an easy nonconference season only to fail to gain the requisite respect and RPI boost once MWC play begins. UNLV's path to a league title is more open than at any time in recent Rebels history. The key is winning a few of those nonconference games even if Stanback faces a lengthier, far less lenient suspension than Willis faced under Kruger in 2011.

Nothing is guaranteed to Rice's team, of course. We're a long way away from UNLV and New Mexico's duel for the MWC title. But more than ever before, it appears to be a two-team duel, one UNLV has a fantastic shot at winning. All the Rebels had to do was return a few players and not go anywhere in last summer's conference realignment. The result? Let's just say, for Rice, there are worse ways to begin your coaching career.