No Joke: Mike Moser proving to be UNLV’s best player and emotional lynchpin

UCLA transfer not only posting huge numbers, but bringing team closer thanks to his gift for pranks

It was 10:44 p.m. on a Thursday night, and outside of a clean-up crew and a couple of media members, Mike Moser and Karam Mashour were the only souls remaining inside the Thomas & Mack Center.

Roughly 90 minutes earlier, Moser had helped UNLV put the finishing touches on a 95-70 throttling of Canisius with 19 points, nine rebounds and five assists in 27 minutes. Mashour, struggling to find a place within first-year coach Dave Rice’s rotation, was scoreless with three fouls and three turnovers in four visibly frustrating minutes of mop-up duty.

Now, the two were working up a sweat all over again. Moser stood in the paint, putting Mashour through a series of drills, then rebounding on countless shot attempts, offering vocal encouragement and constructive criticism the entire way.

On this night — or on any other night, really — Moser didn’t have to stay late. But instead, this was merely something that UNLV’s new-found rock brought with him when he transferred from UCLA after one nondescript season spent mostly watching in warmups from Ben Howland’s bench.

“I remember being Karam at UCLA,” he recalled. “Sitting there the whole game, ready to play, and you only get so many minutes. It didn’t feel like you were part of the game, so you come back out and try to get some work in.

“Karam’s a really good kid, a really good worker, too. He always brings energy when he’s in the game. (The extra workout) is really more on him than me. I’m just trying to be a teammate. That’s all that is.”

It’s that type of approach that has made Moser the invaluable emotional lynchpin that UNLV hasn’t quite had in the last few seasons. On a team that doesn’t have one particular star on the floor or a alpha dog that is looked to in clutch situations, Moser has simply proven to be the right kind of glue to hold all of the talented pieces around him together and help them reach new heights.

Through seven games, culminating with UNLV’s stunning 90-80 upset of No. 1 North Carolina on Saturday night, Moser’s statistical production has made the most noise on the surface. He’s the Rebels’ leading scorer at 15.1 points per game, despite just really finding his offensive rhythm in the last couple of games. Moser is also second in the nation in rebounding at 13.7 per game, and his 2.7 steals per game is also tops on the team.

But his importance to UNLV and its torrid start goes well beyond the numbers.

“I felt really good about Mike because I knew what a good player he was, but then I felt good about his impact on the team really from the time I got here,” first-year coach Dave Rice said of Moser, who was recruited to Las Vegas by former coach Lon Kruger. “It was very obvious how much his teammates liked him. It was very obvious what a natural leader he is, and so I just felt like for a guy who redshirted and hadn’t played a minute here, yet he was one of the leaders of our team, I think that just spoke volumes about the positive impact he was going to have on our team.”

There were signs of that potential impact, though, from the moment he arrived in town last summer for his official visit.

Once a highly-touted recruit out of Grant High in Portland, Ore., the 6-foot-8 Moser struggled to get on the floor at UCLA as a freshman during the 2009-10 season. He averaged only 4.7 minutes per game, and it never felt like a fit. When he announced his intent to transfer, finding a fit both on the court and off of it was his top priority.

The first day of his visit to UNLV involved the usual — playing pick-up ball with the team, taking a tour of the campus and facilities, then hanging out with some of the players that night.

“Most of the time, when guys come on a visit, we get a good feel for them and a vibe of who they are,” junior guard Anthony Marshall said. “Right when Mike came, we hit it off with him instantly.”

When he moved to town a couple of months later, the process of becoming one of the guys sped up immediately.

He quickly earned a reputation as the team’s resident prankster. While he redshirted last season and spent his days as a member of Kruger’s scout team, no one was on the receiving end of his stunts more than his roommates — fellow UCLA transfer Chace Stanback, Kendall Wallace and former walk-on Todd Hanni.

From the sound of it, Wallace got it the worst.

Some were mild, such as the time Moser dumped a half-eaten burrito in the middle of Wallace’s bedroom just for the sake of a quick laugh.

Some took weeks of discipline to fully execute.

“Once, I took about four glasses of milk and just set them under Kendall’s bed,” Moser recalled with a smile. “After a week or so, it was just smelling terrible. He could not find out what was smelling so bad. I took the cups out about three weeks later and had to tell him since it was smelling up the whole house. That was the worst.”

It goes without saying that all of his pranks came with retribution from teammates. Wallace’s payback from the milk stunt was so bad that Moser couldn’t even share it.

“I can’t even tell you that one,” he said while laughing. “That almost started a fight. But it was good, I’ll tell you that. It was really good.”

But, other than helping the Rebels implement game plans for upcoming contests, promoting camaraderie and forming bonds through those twisted jokes were what he felt he could offer to the team at the time.

On a handful of days, Moser would look like the best player on the floor at practice, though when the team hit the skids for a couple of weeks during Mountain West Conference play, he said he felt that it wasn’t his place yet to speak up and try to bring everyone closer since he wasn’t able to go into battle with them.

“I remember we had a losing stretch, and there was a sense of guys just not having fun anymore, and I felt like we could get that back,” Moser said. “I went into this year definitely thinking we could get that fun mentality back, and especially with coach Rice implementing the ‘Let’s Run’ theme.”

Moser would have likely flourished under Kruger and his staff had he stayed, but now he’s doing the same with Rice in place, only with added wrinkles that he’s able to show off thanks to the new staff’s focus on consistently uptempo play.

As a rebounder, he has as good of instincts when chasing balls off of the rim as anyone UNLV has had in recent memory. Given that he can play any of three or four positions on the floor with his ability to handle the ball like a guard, he’s become a super-versatile threat especially off of the defensive glass. He creates problems for opponents when he takes the ball up the floor himself off of loose balls or defensive rebounds, given that he can hurt them as both a scorer and willing distributor.

When it comes to his scoring ability, that’s where Moser is just now finding his place within Rice’s offense.

With his quick, explosive leaping ability, he can score in between and over defenders with apparent ease in the paint, but also has a deadly mid-range jump shot. Moser has above average touch from 3-point range as well.

For him, a hot start reached a new peak against the Tar Heels, when he posted 16 points, 18 rebounds and six assists before celebrating on the floor with thousands of Rebels fans at the Orleans Arena on Saturday night.

In the game, he hit the first two 3-pointers of his UNLV career and grabbed 13 defensive boards while keeping UNC’s loaded front line from dominating the offensive glass and giving the Heels second chances to score. All night long, UNLV out-worked UNC for loose balls, and Moser was at the center of several of those hustle plays.

To top it all off, he played his best game yet in front of 40-50 NBA scouts and executives, who were mainly in town to check out UNC’s roster loaded with future first-round draft picks.

If Moser wasn’t on their radars yet, he certainly is now.

He chose his jersey number — 43 — as a tribute to someone who over the summer before a pick-up game made fun of how few minutes he played per game at UCLA. Despite his penchant for making people laugh any way he can, he’s separated himself from that persona on the floor, and the chip on his shoulder that he brought with from Westwood isn’t fading

“He’s just a workhorse,” Marshall said. “It’s not just a one-person thing, either. As a team, we all have to get better, and he helps us do that. He’s just fun to play with.”

Added Wallace: “When he first came in, (his personality seemed) a little strange, but now that you’re around him a lot, you get used to it. He has a lot of energy. That helps on the court. I’m just glad to have him on our team, to be honest, because I wouldn’t want to be playing against that kind of energy and desire that he has.”

What comes next for Moser is helping his team capitalize on its new-found momentum and preventing another swoon to happen after hitting a peak so early in the season.

The road immediately ahead will make that especially challenging, as before Christmas, UNLV plays at UC Santa Barbara (Wednesday), at Wichita State (Dec. 4), at Wisconsin (Dec. 10), at home against UTEP (Dec. 14), against Illinois at the United Center in Chicago (Dec. 17) and against Cal back at the Mack (Dec. 23).

Even if his individual upward trend continues, though, he’ll always be willing to give a hand to a teammate in need like he did with Mashour back during the late hours on Nov. 17.

After last season, Moser moved out of the apartment with Wallace, Stanback and Hanni and pitched the idea to Mashour of them moving in together, which they ultimately did. Now, Mashour is the prime target of Moser’s practical jokes, which, unfortunately, comes with the territory.

But at the core of their relationship is Moser drawing back on his experience at UCLA, and how it’s now helping UNLV in bigger ways than anyone could have expected.

“As much as I probably didn’t like the situation (at UCLA) at the time, it definitely humbled me a lot, and it makes it easier to enjoy this moment right now,” Moser said. “I’m playing well, and the team’s rolling. I think without that (in the past), it wouldn’t feel as good as it does right now.”

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