CHICAGO – Not long after returning home from an unfulfilling trip to Tulsa, Okla., last March for his first, yet brief, trip to the NCAA tournament, Carlos Lopez got a DVD of UNLV’s 73-62 loss to Illinois.
He forced himself to watch it. Then did so again. And a few more times over the next several months.
But he likely didn’t have to subject himself to the unsightly game film to remind himself of what Saturday’s 2 p.m. showdown with the 19th-ranked Illini (10-0) means to him and the rest of the Rebels (10-2) who took that beating nine months back.
“It was embarrassing,” he said. “Lack of energy, lack of effort, it just seemed like the team wasn’t playing together. And you can’t beat a good team when the team is not playing together. It’s just tough.
“Looking at the score after the game, it was not the nicest thing to see.”
The 11-point margin on the final box score didn’t indicate how lopsided of a game it truly was.
UNLV had scratched and clawed its way through the latter portion of its Mountain West schedule to secure itself as an at-large invitee to the tournament, and by the time it reached Tulsa, looked like a spent group. Illinois, meanwhile, caught many by surprise, after losing six of its last 10 games. The Illini looked as cohesive and explosive against the Rebels as they had all year in jumping out to a 15-0 lead, leading by as many as 25 and all but crushing UNLV’s spirit by halftime.
“They really got out, we knew they could shoot the ball very well, and they had bigs, but I don’t think we really expected them to get out in transition like that,” guard Anthony Marshall recalled. “I’ve had the opportunity to watch some (of Illinois’) games this year and they kind of do the same things this year, so it’s going to be a good game. They like to play uptempo, we like to play uptempo, it should be a battle.”
This season, it’s been a case of addition by subtraction for Illinois. The team lost star senior point guard Demetri McCamey to graduation and former McDonald’s All-American wing Jereme Richmond to early entry into the NBA draft following last season. However, both provided multiple distractions both on and off of the court throughout the year, leading to inconsistent results.
So far this season, it looks like a much less distracted group.
It’s been a fresh set of names who have emerged for the Illini, led by junior guard Brandon Paul, who in his first season as a full-time starter is averaging 10.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game. He gave the Rebels fits for much of the game in March.
One thing UNLV has not been so hot at on the defensive end is taking away the 3-point arc from opponents, and the Rebels will have to do a better job of that against Illinois, who features two lethal long-range gunners. One is junior D.J. Richardson, who played his final season of high school ball at Findlay Prep. He leads the team both in scoring (13.7 ppg) and 3-point field goal percentage (39.4).
The other is senior Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco, who, while on the floor with Richardson, helps spread a defense pretty thin. In Illinois’ toughest road game to date — at Maryland — he scored 24 points and hit five treys.
All of that has opened things up in the middle for the rising star of the group — 7-foot-1 sophomore Meyers Leonard. After only playing about eight minutes a game as a freshman, Leonard is now averaging 13.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks a game. There’s already been significant buzz about him being a possible NBA lottery pick in the near future. He’s joined up front by rugged 6-foot-8 junior Tyler Griffey (7.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg), who is finally emerging after two seasons spent in the shadows.
For UNLV, it’s yet another stop during what has been a grueling stretch of non-conference play. They’ll play two home games in the coming week — Monday against Louisiana-Monroe, then Friday against Cal. After the Rebels take on the Bears leading into the holiday weekend, it will be their first stretch with four days off between games since the start of the season.
Helping with some of the team’s wear and tear issues will be the debut of Marquette transfer Reggie Smith, who will be valuable moving forward for UNLV coming off of the bench.
It was long expected that he would see his first action Saturday in Chicago — the 6-foot guard’s hometown. However, it appears that a waiver application filed with the NCAA to make him eligible before the end of UNLV’s fall semester (Saturday) didn’t make it through fast enough for that to happen. The team boarded its flight on Friday without Smith, and while there’s an outside chance that, if it clears, he could be put on a plane early Saturday morning, Smith will likely see his first action Monday night.
Marshall said that UNLV has learned two hard lessons already this season in road losses to Wichita State and Wisconsin, now knowing that a lack of energy early in the game on the road against top competition is a recipe for disaster. Being fired up for this one early on shouldn’t be an issue, though.
“It was very upsetting and very embarrassing to get on that stage and go out like that,” Marshall said. “It’s one of the games I’ve been looking forward to, and I know my teammates have. They put us out of the tournament last year, they’re a very good ball club with terrific history, and it’s a big challenge for us. If we want to be the team we want to be, you have to go through opponents like this.”