Short-handed UNLV opens against Division II Grand Canyon

Well, all of a sudden, this one looks pretty interesting, huh?

When UNLV’s 2011-12 schedule was released over the summer, some may have rolled their eyes at the thought of a regular-season opener against Division II Grand Canyon.

However, a pair of suspensions (Anthony Marshall and Chace Stanback), a significant early-season injury (Carlos Lopez) and playing the waiting game with a mid-season transfer from a year ago (Reggie Smith) leaves first-year UNLV coach Dave Rice with an unexpectedly thin rotation for today’s 7 p.m. contest at the Thomas & Mack Center.

At his disposal, Rice has seven scholarship players who will be in uniform.

So for tonight’s starting five, we take a closer look at what to watch for as roles shift for the contest against Grand Canyon, which could prove to be a pesky challenger.

1. Missing men. No Anthony Marshall. No Chace Stanback. Who does the scoring? The two guys who will be leaned on heaviest will be sophomore forward Mike Moser and senior guard Oscar Bellfield.

Of the seven healthy, eligible Rebels, these are the two who are most adept at both shooting from the perimeter and creating for themselves. However, the two were a combined 5-for-20 from the floor and 0-for-9 from 3-point range in the team’s ugly 58-50 exhibition victory over Division II Washburn a week ago. Rice will have to hope those performances were merely a result of rust.

Still, they’re crafty, as Moser found a way to score 14 points and work his way to the free-throw line, and Bellfield has been a proven scorer for three years at UNLV, averaging 8.9 points per game in his career.

2. Stepping up. Obviously, players other than Bellfield and Moser will have to contribute in terms of point production.

In the paint, junior forward Quintrell Thomas, who will benefit from playing on a longer leash this season, is a prime candidate against the Grand Canyon front line.

Meanwhile, with minimal depth in the backcourt, UNLV will need to squeeze as much as it can out of junior Justin Hawkins and senior Kendall Wallace.

Hawkins was 1-for-5 from the floor against Washburn, and will again start in place of the suspended Stanback. He’s a capable outside shooter and athletic enough to get to the rim when he wants. The question is: When does he put it all together on offense and click consistently? As for Wallace, in his first game back from an ACL injury that cost him the 2010-11 season, the Rebels’ resident sharpshooter was 0-for-3 against Washburn. However, Rice said he was incredibly encouraged by how well Wallace shot the ball in last Saturday’s 80-72 scrimmage victory over Loyola Marymount.

The dark horse to watch, however, is sophomore Karam Mashour. The 6-foot-6 forward, with some ahead of him on the frontcourt depth chart not being able to go tonight, has a prime opportunity to earn more minutes moving forward. After playing just two minutes in last week’s exhibition, he spent time at both forward spots against Marymount. He’s versatile and athletic enough to handle both, but can he do it in a meaningful game? UNLV needs him to.

3. Triage. The Rebels cannot afford any more injuries. With that said, Wallace will be a guy worth keeping an eye on.

About two weeks ago, not long after shedding his bulky knee brace in practice, the senior began wearing it once again. It was a precautionary measure taken after swelling and pain began to become an issue in the same knee he injured last year. Wallace then underwent an MRI to determine if there was anything serious going on, and what was found, according to trainer Dave Tomchek, is called a bony cartilage defect.

The injury involves a small piece of the cartilage in the knee having been chipped away—an amount about the size of a pencil eraser. Tomchek says it is a similar injury to what former Rebels Tre’Von Willis and Derrick Jasper had. The only way to surgically repair the damage is with the risky and painful microfracture procedure. There are other methods for treating it, but many involved extensive rest—a luxury Wallace doesn’t have entering his senior season.

But it can be played through, which is what Wallace will be opting for. He’ll have to battle some soreness and likely sit out some practices moving forward, much like he did for the better part of Tuesday’s session at the Thomas & Mack.

Still, Rice doesn’t want Wallace trying to be a hero if he doesn’t have to be. That outside shot will be much more valuable in February and March than it is right now.

4. The pitfalls. Obviously, if UNLV suffers any more injuries early in the season, the prevailing thought will be that this team is simply cursed. That makes foul trouble UNLV’s kryptonite against Grand Canyon. That’s especially true in the frontcourt, where Thomas and Brice Massamba are UNLV’s only healthy options.

If things get bleak in the backcourt in terms of fouls, freshmen Barry Cheaney and Warren Norman, both first-year walk-ons, could end up seeing a few spot minutes. As for 6-foot-11 freshman walk-on Bryan Glenn, Rice says that the goal is to redshirt him this season.

5. A hungry opponent. For Grand Canyon, tonight marks the start of its regular season, as well. But Russ Pennell’s club has already been challenged plenty.

The Antelopes played two exhibitions against Pac-12 competition, first falling short at Oregon, 82-75, then dropping an 89-69 decision to Arizona State last Saturday in the first game at the new Grand Canyon University Arena.

They’ll come to Las Vegas on a bit of a high, though, after knocking off San Diego Christian on Tuesday, 83-59.

The key for Pennell’s club will be to see if its hot shooting from Tuesday can carry over, as it found a groove after struggling mightily to score consistently in its first two games. The Antelopes shot 52 percent against San Diego Christian after shooting in the mid-30s combined against Oregon and Arizona State, which are teams more on UNLV’s level.