Despite so-so history at the Orleans, UNLV out to defend home turf this weekend

There is this much to know about UNLV’s brief history in playing at the Orleans Arena: It hasn’t been terribly pretty.

Yes, the Rebels are 3-1 at their unofficial home away from home since first playing there in December 2007.

But the performances have not been stellar for a variety of reasons.

As UNLV (5-0) gets set to take on Southern Cal (2-3) on Friday at 4:30 p.m. in their first of two Las Vegas Invitational contests, the players who have been on the floor at the Orleans before will try to block out the past.

“I think it’s all in the mind,” junior guard Anthony Marshall said. “I felt like last year, when we played Boise (State), that we started off pretty good, then at the end we just broke down as a team. If we just go in there ready to execute our game plan, we’ll be fine.”

Last December, UNLV defeated Boise State at the Orleans, 75-72. The Rebels started hot and led by 14 points at the half before a series of defensive lapses helped the Broncos back into the game. It was UNLV’s ninth straight victory to start the season, but marked the first time that the Rebels had looked vulnerable all year.

Other than when Kansas State came to town for a game at the Orleans in 2009, UNLV hasn’t had what many would consider ‘brand name’ competition since first playing there. That won’t be the case this weekend, as maintaining focus shouldn’t be a problem.

Though USC has struggled out of the gates, several members of UNLV’s regular rotation were on the floor two years ago when Kevin O’Neill’s team out-muscled the Rebels and embarrassed them in a 67-56 loss in the championship game at the Diamond Head Classic.

Of course, there’s also the fact that No. 1 North Carolina is in the four-team field. If UNLV and UNC both take care of business on Friday — The Tar Heels play SEC cellar-dweller South Carolina — then the two will meet on Saturday back at the Orleans at 7:30 p.m.

UNLV is fresh off of a 75-52 victory on Tuesday night over Cal Poly. The Mustangs beat USC last weekend by using the Trojans’ own slow-it-down style against them, but UNLV was able to wear Cal Poly down eventually with its defensive pressure in the back-court.

The Rebels will try to turn the heat up on the Trojans in a similar fashion, and if they can overcome their history of struggling to shoot from the outside at the Orleans, UNLV could overwhelm USC early on both ends.

UNLV was 6-of-9 from 3-point range in the first half last season against Boise State, but was just 1-of-6 in the final 20 minutes from deep while the Broncos mounted their comeback.

There are multiple intangibles that poor shooting at the Orleans could be blamed on. For one, it takes players a while to get used to the colder than normal temperature in the Orleans, as the basketball court is set up on top of the Las Vegas Wranglers’ ice. Also, especially on the end without seats, it can take a while to get used to the depth behind the hoops.

“It’s a different feel from playing at the Thomas & Mack, but I think it’s all mental,” Marshall said. “All goals are the same size, and even with the depth in the background, it’s still a goal. I feel like we just go in there, take time to warm up, get adjusted to the rims in there and the scenery, and we’ll be fine.”

First-year coach Dave Rice also agrees that it’s likely a mental deal more than anything else. He pointed out how well his BYU team in 2009 shot the ball during a two-game blitz through the field at the Las Vegas Classic. In victories over Nevada-Reno and Nebraska, 68-of-109 from the floor and 14-of-31 from long range.

After holding a two-hour team practice on Thursday morning followed by a team Thanksgiving dinner, Rice and his staff took the Rebels down to the Orleans for a one-hour shoot around in preparation for Friday.

“I don’t think that I put any stock at all in how our team shot in a particular arena in past years, because I’ve said from Day One that we have a really good shooting team,” he said. “And I believe that we’re going to shoot the ball consistently well all year.”

Though it’s still a small sample size, UNLV is already on pace to shoot the ball better than it did a year ago. It’s up to 49.2 percent overall as a team from 45.9 in 2010-11, while its 3-point percentage is up from 33 percent to 38.2.

The Orleans, also, will hardly be the only different environment UNLV will have to get used to shooting in over the next few weeks.

After Tuesday’s win, UNLV doesn’t play again at the Mack until Dec. 14, while the rodeo takes over the Rebels’ home arena for the next couple of weeks.

USC Scouting Report

USC will try to make this game resemble the one it played against UNLV in 2009. The Trojans are only averaging 56.4 points per game, while only allowing 56.6 … UNLV might have a valuable scouting tool on its hands in redshirting wing Bryce Jones, who transferred from USC after last season … Though he’s gotten off to a bit of a slow start, 7-foot sophomore Dewayne Dedmon will command plenty of attention from the UNLV front court. He’ll be the best big man the Rebels have faced to date, and so far is averaging seven points and 6.2 rebounds a game … 5-foot-7 sophomore Maurice Jones has been thrust into the spotlight after a torn ACL this summer took away the season for star point guard Jio Fontan. Jones so far has responded well as a scorer, averaging 14.6 points per game. After committing 12 turnovers in the team’s first three games, he’s only coughed it up twice in the last two. It will be interesting to see how well he holds up physically moving forward, though. He’s averaging an incredible 41.2 minutes per game, having played at least 38 each time out.

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