NORMAL -- Trey Blue has done this before.
Illinois State's sophomore guard was a freshman at Fordham in 2008 when the Rams faced Villanova in their second game. Villanova, which wound up in the Final Four that season, buried Fordham, 107-68, but Blue had 11 points.
"That's the first time I ever played against a big team, and the stands were full," said Blue, who transferred to ISU after the season. "I'm looking forward to that again, finally getting a known team nationally. I like that. We're really looking forward to it. The whole team wants to see where we're at."
ISU (5-1) hosts its first ranked team in three seasons Wednesday. Nevada-Las Vegas (6-0), which is No. 24 in this week's Associated Press poll, comes to Redbird Arena for a 7:05 p.m. game that is part of the Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge.
A challenge might be an understatement.
"In my opinion, this will be the best team we've played since we've been here -- bar none," said ISU fourth-year coach Tim Jankovich. "They are very impressive in every way I can think of. They're very talented, quick, big, fast, deep and really, really well coached. I think they have the potential to make a great run in the NCAA Tournament."
The Rebels return all five starters from last year's NCAA tourney squad that lost to another Valley team, Northern Iowa, in the first round. UNLV tuned up for Wednesday's game by winning the 76 Classic in Anaheim, Calif., beating Virginia Tech in Sunday's championship game.
"We have a veteran group. I didn't know exactly how we would open the season. You never know about your team," said UNLV coach Lon Kruger, who was Illinois' coach from 1996-2000. "Our consistency in regards to focus, effort and sharing the ball and playing with intensity was good (in Anaheim)."
Junior forward Chace Stanback was named the tourney's most valuable player after averaging 17.0 points and 4.3 rebounds while shooting 70 percent from the field (21 of 30).
This will be the Rebels' first true road game. They opened with three straight home games, including a 68-65 victory over then-No. 25 Wisconsin, before wins over Tulsa, Murray State and Virginia Tech in Anaheim.
UNLV didn't arrive home until early Monday morning after Sunday night's title game and left Tuesday afternoon for Chicago.
"It is part of the challenge," said Kruger. "There are going to be moments when there's a short turnaround and travel involved. It's something a team needs to go through and grow from."
How the Redbirds handle UNLV's defensive pressure will be crucial. The Rebels are forcing 17.3 turnovers per game and holding opponents to 34.9 percent field goal shooting, which is ninth in the nation.
"They play at a completely different intensity level than anyone I've seen in a few years," said Jankovich. "Defensively they really crank it up. Coach Kruger has got them playing at a fever pitch, and it's very disruptive."
Kruger was an assistant coach at Kansas State, where he was a star player in the 1970s, when Jankovich was the Wildcats' point guard in the early 1980s. Kruger got his first head coaching job at Texas-Pan American and gave Jankovich his start in coaching when he hired him as a graduate assistant in 1983.
"Whatever the outcome it is a great opportunity," said Jankovich. "Best-case scenario everything goes perfect and it's a magical night. Worst-case scenario a lot of young guys get to see where we hope to go one day."
UNLV vs. Illinois State
Time: 7:05 p.m.
Site: Redbird Arena, Normal
Radio: WJBC (AM-1230, FM-93.7)
Records: UNLV 6-0; Illinois State 5-1
Series history/last meeting: ISU leads, 2-1 (UNLV won, 94-92, on Dec. 13, 1978)
About the Runnin’ Rebels: UNLV was picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West Conference in the league’s preseason media poll. ... The Rebels rank third in the nation in field goal percentage at .551 through games of Nov. 28. UNLV has shot over 50 percent in five games this season, with a best of 62.5 percent against Southeastern Louisiana. … Senior guard Tre’Von Willis was a first-team all-Mountain West selection last season and was named to this season’s preseason all-MWC squad. Willis was suspended for the first two games after offseason legal troubles. He has come off the bench the last four games and averages 8.5 points and 1.8 rebounds. … Assistant coach Steve Henson (1999-2000) and director of basketball operations Mike Shepherd (1996-2000) were on Lon Kruger’s staff at Illinois along with ISU assistant coach Rob Judson. ... Senior guard Kendall Wallace, who was born in Bloomington, is out for the season after suffering a torn ACL in August and will redshirt. He is the son of former Lincoln High School player Jeff Wallace and grandson of former Lincoln and Bloomington coach Loren Wallace.
Next: Saturday vs. Montana State, 7:05 p.m.
Prediction: UNLV 76, Illinois State 62
(Scoring, rebounding averages)
F — Chace Stanback, 6-8, Jr. (17.2, 4.2); Quintrell Thomas, 6-8, So. (8.2, 2.8); G — Derrick Jaspar, 6-6, Sr. (7.3, 5.8); Oscar Bellfield, 6-2, Jr. (11.5, 3.3); Anthony Marshall, 6-3, So. (9.0, 3.5).
F — Tony Lewis, 6-7, Sr. (8.5, 8.2); Jackie Carmichael, 6-9, So. (11.8, 4.3); G — Alex Rubin, 6-1, Sr. (6.5, 2.5); Justin Clark, 6-4, So. (6.5, 3.8); Austin Hill, 6-1, Sr. (10.5, 2.2).