Are they contenders or pretenders? That’s the question I’m now asking myself about this season’s edition of the UNLV Rebels.
During the 1990s they were definitely contenders. In the 10-year span from 1991-2000 the Runnin’ Rebels consistently finished in the top 10 in the final rankings.
In eight of those 10 years, UNLV placed in the top 10 at the NCAA, topped by its national championship win in 1998 in a season where it won seven tournament titles.
But since the turn of the century, the Rebels have pretty much been pretenders. Granted from 2000 through 2010 they have ended the season in the top 30 of the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings, with five top-10 finishes, including No. 4 in the 2004-05 campaign.
But UNLV has not had a top-10 finish at the NCAA since tying for eighth in 2005. And last season, not only did the Rebels not qualify for the finals, they finished 50th in the final rankings.
Things appear to be changing – and for the better for coach Dwaine Knight, now in his 25th season at the UNLV helm.
In their first six starts this season, the Rebels have won four times, while adding a second and a sixth.
“I’m really proud of the way they have played,” said Knight. “But I think what has surprised me the most is that in three of those wins we set tournament scoring records. To me, that’s pretty impressive.”
Two of those came in the fall when UNLV shot 20 under and beat Colorado in a playoff at the Air Force Falcon Invitational and when it shot 34 under to capture the New Mexico State/Herb Wimberly event.
The Rebels added a third with a 20-under performance last weekend at the Wyoming Desert Classic.
They also won the Tucker Invitational and placed sixth at the Jerry Pate in the fall and opened the spring with a second at the John Burns in Hawaii.
Impressive so far, no doubt.
The real test, however, as to whether UNLV can be considered a contender or a pretender, comes next week. While the strength of fields so far has been fairly solid, they won’t come close to comparing to what the Rebels will take on when they host the Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters from March 9-11.
“There’s no doubt we’ll be stepping up to tall cotton next week,” Knight said. “This will really be an indicator to where we are. It will be a big test for us. But the guys are very excited about playing against one of the best, if not the best, fields in college golf on their home course.”
This time around the SHCM will boast a 15-team field that includes four teams currently ranked in the top five; five in the top 10; 10 of the top 25; and 13 of the top 50.
Top-ranked Texas leads the way and is joined by Alabama (2), USC (4), UCLA (5), California (10), UNLV (11), Stanford (12), Texas A&M (15), Duke (17), Oklahoma State (24), Florida (27), TCU (37) and Texas Tech (42). Rounding things out are Arizona State and New Mexico State.
The Rebels will have plenty of successful program history to draw upon as well. Since the event was moved to Southern Highlands in 2002, UNLV has won the title outright four times and in 2010 tied for first with UCLA.
“We may be playing our home course, but all the guys realize the challenge in front of them against some of the best teams in the nation,” Knight said.
Senior Derek Ernst has led the Rebel charge this season. No. 20 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings, he is 6-for-6 in top-15 finishes, including four top fives.
Kevin Penner, ranked 68th, has really stepped up. The junior has four top-six showings including wins at the Falcon and Desert Classic, while sophomore Blake Biddle has not finished outside the top 25 and has three top 10s.
Freshman Carl Johnson has started each tournament and has four top-25 finishes. Sophomore Nicholas Maruri was in the starting lineup in each of UNLV’s four fall events, posting three top-15 finishes.
Maruri, however, severely injured his wrist over Thanksgiving and is a question mark as far as playing this spring. Freshman Kurt Kitayama filled the spot in the spring’s first two tournaments and at the Desert Classic tied for 17th.
“I really feel we have the recipe for putting together a really strong team,” Knight said. “I think we’re starting to get momentum again.”
The UNLV Runnin’ Rebels – contenders or pretenders?
The answer may very well unfold next week at the Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters.