UNLV’s zone-busting prowess shines through in 92-55 blowout of Morgan State

It likely won’t be the last time UNLV sees a zone defense this year, and when the Rebels do in the future, busting it up won’t always look quite as easy as it did on Sunday night.

But in a 92-55 rout of Morgan State, UNLV showed just how dangerous it’s capable of being if opponents decide to get away from old-school man-to-man tactics.

The Rebels (4-0) hit 12 of 23 3-point attempts, recorded assists on 29 of 35 made field goals and out-scored the Bears (0-3) on the fast break 29-2.

“We’ve talked to our guys quite a bit that we’re going to see a lot of zone this year for a variety of reasons,” first-year coach Dave Rice said. “There’s a reputation that we’re not a very good outside shooting team, and I think we’re doing a pretty good job of proving that wrong. Our guys are playing with confidence, and we’re really selective with our outside shots.”

It may be a small sample size to date, and against far from prime competition, but after shooting 33 percent as a team from 3-point range last season, UNLV is now at 41 percent this season.

Several times last season, the Rebels had trouble with breaking up zones for a couple of reasons. One was that they didn’t have enough individuals of putting the ball on the floor and collapsing it, and they also at times tried to force the issue of shooting over a zone by taking questionable shots from long range.

It wasn’t that UNLV didn’t always have capable outside shooters, but both personnel additions and style changes. are reasons behind the early success this year.

The newcomer making the biggest difference in that department so far is sophomore UCLA transfer Mike Moser, whose incredible start to the 2011-12 campaign continued in a big way on Sunday. The 6-foot-8 power forward had 23 points, 17 rebounds, six assists and five steals in 33 minutes, and is now averaging 16.5, 14.3, 3.8 and 3.8 per game in those categories, respectively.

When either grabbing one of his 11 defensive boards or recording a steal on Sunday, Moser wasn’t looking to get rid of the ball right away all of the time. With his incredible versatility, he was able to push the ball himself, cutting down the amount of time Morgan State had to set up its 2-3 zone.

“It’s like playing with a big point guard,” forward Chace Stanback said.

Moser did everything outside of actually hitting those threes.

Stanback was responsible for five of them on a night when he had 20 points and seven rebounds, while Oscar Bellfield canned three. Kendall Wallace, who looked more comfortable with his shot than he had in his first three games back from last year’s right knee injury, hit two, while Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins each hit one, too.

Almost all of UNLV’s attempts from deep were open and taken in rhythm. They were byproducts of outstanding ball movement — often through the post — and even more impressive movement without the ball.

“It starts with Kendall Wallace, (Marshall) and (Hawkins) — guys on the wings,” Moser said. “It makes the zone … it can’t collapse as easy. They’ll just leave me open in the middle because they’re so worried about those guys shooting the ball so well, and rightfully so.

“So, really, it just makes it easy for me. I’m also not being guarded at all.”

Moser took full advantage of opportunities within the middle of Morgan State’s zone. He hit four straight open looks from the free throw line that were practically given to him, then also attacked the basket a fair amount.

What also threw a wrench into Morgan State’s plans was UNLV’s pressure defense on the perimeter.

The Bears came in with an obvious plan of taking the air out of the ball, extending the shot clock as long as possible and then hammering UNLV with its bevy of big bodies inside.

Instead, they had trouble getting the ball inside the 3-point arc.

The Rebels shot out to an early lead by forcing turnovers in the back-court, which led to easy transition opportunities. That, in turn, forced UNLV’s preferred pace of play on a Morgan State team that was incapable of keeping up. UNLV forced 23 turnovers and recorded 19 steals, doing much of that during an impressive second half spurt that saw them show some killer instinct by pulling away in a hurry.

“It puts pressure on the opponent when we’re able to play that hard and sustain effort,” Rice said. “And what gives us the opportunity to do that is the guys we have coming in making great contributions off of the bench.”

Minutes were split up pretty evenly among the reserves, and guard Justin Hawkins, who entered the game as UNLV’s unexpected leading scorer through three outings, played a season-low 17 minutes.

Part of that may have been Rice trying to keep guys’ legs fresh as the rest of this week will hardly be treated like a holiday.

Tuesday night, UNLV will face Cal Poly, who will also try to slow the game down to a grind. The Mustangs haven’t allowed any of their first three opponents to score more than 60 points, and turned some heads when they defeated Southern Cal on Saturday night by the odd score of 42-36.

That will be followed, oddly enough, by a game against USC on Friday night at the Orleans Arena, then a meeting with either South Carolina or No. 1 North Carolina back at the Orleans 24 hours later.

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