Was one week enough time for UNLV to get its batteries recharged?
The answer should be obvious pretty early in Saturday’s 11 a.m. contest at No. 14 Wisconsin.
The Rebels (9-1) hit a wall both physically and mentally last Sunday in an 89-70 loss at Wichita State, then got a little bit of their momentum back in dusting NAIA foe Cal State San Marcos at the Orleans Arena on Wednesday night.
Now comes arguably their toughest road test of the non-conference season. The Badgers (7-2) not only have revenge on their minds from last year’s 68-65 loss at the Thomas & Mack Center, but they’re also looking to regain some of their air of invincibility at the Kohl Center after falling last Saturday on their home floor to in-state rival Marquette.
Here, now, is Saturday’s Starting Five …
1) Rest … Valuable Rest
First-year coach Dave Rice has had to be very conscious of the amount of rest his team has gotten of late, especially after they looked gassed for the better part of the Wichita State game.
The team got Monday off, then also went without practicing on Thursday during a travel day. On top of that, no starter played more than 28 minutes on Wednesday night in what was the ideal stepping-stone game into another brutal stretch on the non-conference schedule.
Eating up many of those extra minutes in the back-court on Wednesday was junior guard Justin Hawkins, who continued to be the team’s most energetic and productive player off of the bench. He scored 23 points to go with seven rebounds and five steals in 25 minutes. Expect him to see big minutes in this one, too, especially against Wisconsin star point guard Jordan Taylor. He was crucial against Taylor in the second half of last year’s meeting.
Taylor, arguably the nation’s finest point guard, is down a bit this year as a scorer (18.1 ppg as a junior, 12.4 ppg this season), but still is just as capable of doing so in every way imaginable. His greatest value this season is as a facilitator, where he’s averaging roughly 4.5 assists for every time he turns the ball over.
2) What will be Moser’s offensive approach?
UNLV sophomore forward Mike Moser, who still leads the nation in rebounding at 12.5 per game, looked fine on the glass against undersized Cal State San Marcos. He grabbed 12, giving him double-digit boards for the seventh time this season.
But at Tuesday’s practice, he suffered a sprained right wrist, which required a wrap to stabilize it not only for the rest of that session, but also for Wednesday’s game. In turn, he scored just six points while attempting only eight shots.
He said afterwards that the wrap affected his shot a little bit, and he decided not to test it too much against the Cougars, trying to facilitate more instead. He also said that the wrist felt better after the game, too. How does he approach the game offensively on Saturday? If his shot is falling, Moser’s mid-range game could prove valuable in spreading things out for others.
3) Lopez being Lopez
Sophomore big man Carlos Lopez has been UNLV’s most important reserve so far this season behind Hawkins. In becoming a reliable back-up, he’s found a nice niche in that he can provide instant offense when it’s needed the most.
In UNLV’s last three wins, he’s scored 29 points in only 44 minutes. In Rice’s offense, which flows heavily through the high post, Lopez has looked comfortable with the ball in his hands. The most impressive part of his production is that he’s getting it done on a right ankle that still isn’t back to 100 percent from an early season sprain.
4) Rebounding and perimeter defense again the keys
UNLV was out-rebounded for the first time all season last Sunday, and in turn lost at Wichita State. Also, in that game, after forcing more than 16 turnovers per contest, the Rebels only made the Shockers cough up possession six times.
The Rebels are at their best when they dominate both of those categories. Limiting offensive rebounding opportunities for opponents helps them create more offensive chances for themselves, while pressuring the perimeter and closing out in the passing lanes creates plenty of fast breaks.
Doing so against the Badgers, who are holding opponents to just 44.2 points per game, won’t be easy. Not only does Wisconsin out-rebound its opponents by an average margin of 6.3 boards per game, but they’ve only turned the ball over 75 times in nine games. For as much as he handles the ball, the fact that Jordan Taylor only has 12 turnovers this year is pretty remarkable.
UNLV beat Wisconsin at its own game a year ago, winning a slowed down, grind-it-out affair. Can the Rebels do it again? Given that this one is on the road, their best bet is to try and speed the Badgers up, which few teams do successfully at the Kohl Center.
5) Behind Taylor …
In forward Jon Leuer last season, Taylor had a consistent, highly productive sidekick. The loss of his 18.3 points and 7.2 rebounds per game has been picked up by a committee of up-and-comers.
Junior forwards Jared Berggren (12.1 ppg, 5.1 rig) and Ryan Evans (9.9 ppg, 6.4 rig) have both stepped up big-time after being role players a year ago. The same can be said for sophomore guard Ben Brust (11.2 ppg), who is a weapon from beyond the 3-point arc.
If UNLV can bottle up Taylor, the guy to keep an eye out for is 6-foot-3 sophomore guard Josh Gasser. He had a tough shooting afternoon at the Mack last year, but UNLV lost track of him several times. He’s not taking a ton of shots this year, but is hitting his threes at a 61.5 percent clip. If the Rebels aren’t careful, he could potentially be as dangerous for them as Wichita State’s Joe Ragland was from deep last Sunday.