UNLV’s marathon stretch begins Thursday against Canisius

The opponents UNLV will face over the next six days don’t have the name recognition like the ones they’ll see over Thanksgiving weekend at the Orleans Arena, but the workload will be far from easy.

With Thursday’s 7 p.m. tipoff against Canisius at the Thomas & Mack Center, UNLV begins a stretch of three games in six days, which will provide a true litmus test of where the team’s focus and conditioning is at this point of the season.

First-year coach Dave Rice has talked repeatedly over the last couple of months about his team’s need to play its way into shape. Well, here’s an opportunity to do just that.

In Monday’s 71-67 victory over rival Nevada-Reno, UNLV (2-0) showed some fatigue in the second half, losing most of an 18-point lead, before hanging on at the end.

After Thursday, UNLV hosts Morgan State on Sunday, then Cal Poly next Tuesday. This all leads up to the Nov. 25 showdown with Southern Cal at the Orleans Arena in the Las Vegas Invitational, which could be followed by a meeting with No. 1 North Carolina 24 hours later (depending on what both teams do the previous evening).

Before getting too far ahead, however, here’s Thursday’s Starting Five …

1) Defensive delight

With much of the focus coming into this season going towards Rice’s exciting, up-tempo offense, it’s an old staple from the Lon Kruger days that has proven too much for UNLV’s first two opponents: defense.

Grand Canyon and Reno combined for just 18 assists and committed 27 turnovers in those two outings, shooting just 37 percent from the floor.

This is a good sign coming into Thursday’s game, as Canisius returns just one starter from a team that went 15-15 last season and hasn’t proven to be multi-dimensional on offense so far. In a 1-1 start, the Golden Griffins’ backcourt trio of Harold Washington, Alshwan Hymes and Gaby Belardo has combined for 49.5 shot attempts per game. There isn’t much depth up front.

2) Keeping up the confidence

In scoring a career-high 25 points in the season opener, junior guard Justin Hawkins looked as confident as he has at any point in his UNLVcareer during a second-half explosion.

The best thing to come from that, though, was that the swagger carried over into Monday’s victory over the Wolf Pack, against whom he looked like that same guy the second he came off of the bench in the first half. The result was a team-high 13 points in 24 minutes.

Hawkins arguably remains UNLV’s best on-ball defender in the backcourt, and against a team that runs much of its offense through its perimeter guys, he’ll have to be that guy yet again. The odds appear to be pretty good that he will.

3) Monitoring Lopez

It will be very interesting to see how much sophomore forward Carlos Lopez plays over the next six days.

Just a week after he said his ankle was at about 25 percent, Lopez played an unexpected 18 minutes in a reserve role against UNR, scoring nine points, grabbing four rebounds, blocking four shots and giving a shot of life to UNLV during key stretches in each half.

But don’t think his ankle is completely healed just yet. He played that many minutes Monday out of necessity, as starting center Brice Massamba spent much of the game in foul trouble.

That same energy will be needed starting late next week, when a killer stretch of UNLV’s schedule commences. Therefore, keeping Lopez as fresh as possible is key.

4) Pick to click …

Given that both teams will look to make this a fast-paced game Thursday night, it seems like an ideal spot for junior guard Anthony Marshall to have a big night.

Marshall, in his first action of the season Monday, went 0-for-7 from the floor. That kept him from making too much noise in comparison to what guys such as Hawkins and forward Mike Moser were doing. But he still had a pretty solid night, going 7-for-8 from the free-throw line, grabbing eight rebounds, dishing out seven assists and turning the ball over just twice in 32 minutes.

When games are played at a helter-skelter pace, Marshall has had a tendency in the past to get a bit out of control at times with the ball. But he can also fill up the bucket quickly in an up-tempo environment. This could be a nice breakout opportunity for him.

5) Keys for slowing Canisius

Against a team with guards who like to fire at will, it’s best to try and limit its possessions as much as possible.

In UNLV’s first two games, it grabbed 62 defensive rebounds, while allowing only 22 offensive boards. A major player in that effort has been Moser, who in his first two games as a Rebel has 20 defensive rebounds, and 31 boards overall.

If the Rebels can limit Canisius’ second-chance opportunities, given their stiff advantage in terms of offensive depth and firepower, they could make this a lopsided affair pretty early.