No. 18 UNLV hits the road … Again

Rebels prepare to face most hostile environment yet at Wichita State

UNLV met its first complication on this weekend’s road trip Friday night.

En route to Wichita, the Rebels were held on the ground for a few additional hours in Dallas due to maintenance on the plane before their connecting flight.

Given that the game between No. 18 UNLV (8-0) and Wichita State (4-2) isn’t until Sunday night, the team ended up reaping the benefits of leaving for this road trip a day earlier than normal, avoiding a late-night arrival the night before a 1 p.m. tip-off.

The motivation for first-year coach Dave Rice behind leaving early was getting his team a little bit of extra rest at the end of what has been a wild week. Now he hopes the rest of the trip goes smoother than the flight down did.

Now, here’s the Starting Five for what will likely be one of UNLV’s tougher road tests this season.

1) Striking a balance

Just as valuable as rest between games will be for UNLV over the next few weeks leading into Mountain West Conference play will be rest for Rice’s players during games.

The team got the day off following Wednesday’s thrilling 94-88 double-overtime victory at UC Santa Barbara. In that game, all five Rebels starters played at least 36 minutes, while starting guards Anthony Marshall and Oscar Bellfield combined to play 92.

“We’ve played a lot of games in a short amount of time, so we’ve got to make sure we’ve got our legs and got our rest,” Rice said. “And I’ve got to make sure I get guys plenty of rest in the first half so they’re strong in the second half, because we are certainly a really good second half team.”

That’s been especially true on the offensive end. After a monster second half in last Saturday’s upset of then-No. 1 North Carolina, UNLV shot 48.9 percent from the floor and 44.4 percent from 3-point range after the break at UCSB. Comparatively, they were 40.7 percent from the floor and just 15.4 percent from deep before the break.

2) Rebounding again key

A common denominator throughout UNLV’s 8-0 start has been its consistent presence on both the offensive and defensive glass.

On Wednesday night, they tied UCSB in the rebounding department, 45-45. It was the first time in the Rebels’ first eight games that they did not out-rebound their opponent. In turn, Rice pointed out an interesting stat following Friday’s practice — in 140 games under coach Gregg Marshall, Wichita State has won the battle of the boards in 111 of those games.

It goes without saying that sophomore forward Mike Moser will again have to come up huge in that area for UNLV. His 13.3 rebounds per game are still good for first in the Division-I ranks. Meanwhile, Chace Stanback has been a consistent force on the boards for UNLV, and Rice would like to continue to get the type of efforts on the glass that he’s had from senior center Brice Massamba.

3) Speaking of centers …

After coming up with a couple of big plays in nine minutes against North Carolina, Quintrell Thomas was visibly frustrated while playing only four minutes off of the bench against UCSB.

It’s been a tough transition into Rice’s system for Thomas, who will likely still keep getting opportunities to earn more playing time as a reserve.

As for why he played so little on Wednesday …

“I think sometimes, like the other night, it’s not so much what someone’s not doing as what someone is doing,” Rice said. “I just had a comfort level with Brice, I thought he played really, really well. The way Santa Barbara was guarding us, we needed to have a guy we could throw the ball to in the post.”

A big part of Rice’s offensive system involves the offense working through the post, and from the sound of it, that’s where Thomas needs to get up to speed, as his rebounding effort has not faded at all.

4) Lopez blossoming

While his right ankle still is not back to 100 percent, sophomore Carlos Lopez is consistently giving UNLV a nice offensive boost off of the bench.

Against UCSB, he scored nine points in nine minutes, and in seven games is averaging 6.9 points in 13.4 minutes a game, but his most impressive stat is his 70.8 field goal percentage — up from 53.3 a year ago.

As far as an intangible that stands out, it’s how Lopez has learned to harness his emotions, which at times kept him off of the floor a year ago when the Rebels could have used him.

“My teammates have been helping me out with that,” Lopez said, citing a specific example during the UNC game where he was held back by Anthony Marshall. “I feel like I’m growing as a player, but also using my emotions on my side instead of against me.

“I only have one technical foul (this year). I’m still going to play with my emotions. I love the crowd, I love to scream, I love to make faces, and that’s my game.”

Continuing to keep that in check will be more important than ever in the next couple of weeks, when games at Wichita State, Wisconsin and Illinois will be played in three of the more hostile environments UNLV will see all year.

5) A closer look at Wichita State

Losses to Temple and Alabama during a November tournament in Puerto Rico were hardly anything humiliating for Wichita State, who finished last season by winning the NIT.

But for a strong mid-major team with potential at-large NCAA tournament berth hopes, the next three games will be their biggest before Missouri Valley play starts. After hosting UNLV, the Shockers will play at Tulsa on Wednesday, then back at home against Utah State next Saturday.

At Koch Arena, the Shockers have one of the nation’s more underrated home court advantages, as all 10,506 seats will likely be filled. When there, UNLV will take on a veteran-laden group that returned all five starters from a year ago. That core is highlighted by a senior trio on the perimeter in guards Toure’ Murry and David Kyles along with forward Ben Smith.

Their scoring is balanced, with six players averaging at least eight points per game, while an unexpected struggle for them so far this season has been taking care of the basketball. They’ve committed 90 turnovers in six games, so UNLV’s pressure defense on the perimeter could again be a major key.

There is a Las Vegas connection on the roster in junior guard Demetric Williams. They Cheyenne High grad was a former high school rival of UNLV’s Anthony Marshall, and the two are still friends. He averages 3.8 points during his 20.7 minutes per game.