UNLV hopes to close out 2011 with a bang at Hawaii

Rebels will try to maintain focus in preparing for Saturday's game in paradise against upset-minded Warriors

The concept of a morning shoot-around before a road game might sound pretty simple and routine.

To UNLV first-year coach Dave Rice, it makes a world of difference in how his team performs away from Las Vegas.

Before road day games at Wichita State and Wisconsin earlier this season, Rice opted to let his players sleep in rather than force them out of bed for an early morning shooting session in a foreign gym.

In both of those games, not only did the 19th-ranked Rebels (14-2) lose, but they started them with a visible lack of intensity and general energy that created early holes too deep to be dug out of.

“We’re a team that needs to get up in the morning, and for us, repetition is more important than sleep, and it’s really that simple,” Rice said.

A morning shoot-around on Saturday will certainly take place for UNLV, who later in the day will tip-off against Hawaii (7-5) after spending 48 hours leading up to the game in Honolulu. The game is set for 5 p.m. PST, and will be shown on channel 8 in Las Vegas.

After thoroughly enjoying a 124-75 thrashing of Central Arkansas on Wednesday night at the Thomas & Mack Center, the Rebels rose early on Thursday morning to board a flight to Honolulu.

The goal now for the team is to not get lulled into a trance by the beauty and the weather that the islands have to offer before it’s time for business on Saturday.

The Rebels will be walking into a tough environment against a rapidly-improving young team. After a tough 2-4 start, Hawaii has won five of its last six, including two wins while hosting the Diamond Head Classic over Christmas weekend against shorthanded-yet-14th-ranked Xavier and Clemson.

It’s a very different-looking team, too, than the one UNLV drubbed two years ago when the two met in the Diamond Head Classic.

Second-year coach Gib Arnold has pieced together a group that is quickly starting to gel. He’s built around Arizona transfer Zane Johnson (15.5 ppg) on the perimeter and junior college transfers Vander Joaquim (12.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg) and Joston Thomas (10.3 ppg) underneath. Plus, there are some nice young pieces that he landed out of high school who are developing nicely in 6-foot-7 wing Trevor Wiseman (7.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and freshman guard Shaquille Stokes (10.6 ppg, 2.9 apg) – both former UNLV recruiting targets of Lon Kruger’s staff.

Not surprisingly, it’s a team that plays its best basketball at home.

Several members of UNLV’s current rotation were on that team that fell flat in the Diamond Head title game two years ago against USC, but played well in its first two games of the tournament and found ways to avoid distractions of the road trip by slamming SMU and the Warriors.

“It’s really tough, especially with the atmosphere of a place like Hawaii,” senior forward Chace Stanback said. “It’s a great place to be, you’ve got the ocean, you’ve got all kinds of things out there. But this is not a fun trip, it’s a business trip.”

Stanback also agreed that having the morning shoot-around on Saturday will play a role in how the Rebels show up for what many view as a potential trap spot for a team that is on a nice streak at the moment.

It worked for UNLV in Chicago two weeks back leading into what was ultimately a 64-48 blasting of then-No. 19 Illinois. After the game, Rice said he could tell that the shoot-around helped reset his team’s focus heading into a game that it had had circled on the schedule since last March’s embarrassment at the hands of the Illini in the NCAA tournament opener.

“When we go to shoot around, it helps us focus a lot,” Stanback said. “We’re really accustomed to doing that. When we don’t do it, it’s not normal for us, but it’s good to get out, get some shots up early in the morning, get your mind right.”

Of course, just having a shoot-around won’t guarantee the Rebels success against an upset-minded foe.

While UNLV might not score again this year quite like it did on Wednesday in a memorable night at the Mack, it’s consistent unselfishness and flow on offense could keep future opponents off-balance on the defensive end. On 47 made baskets, UNLV recorded 40 assists, which was not only one shy of a school single-game record, but was the highest total of helpers posted in a game by a team this season in the NCAA ranks.

After the game, UNLV will hop on a red-eye flight that lands in Vegas early Sunday morning, only to leave a few days later for next Thursday’s non-conference finale at Cal State Bakersfield (6-7). Then comes the team’s first extended break of the season leading into the Jan. 14 Mountain West Conference opener at No. 25 San Diego State (11-2) on Jan. 14.

Stay tuned to RunRebs.com for full coverage both during and after Saturday’s game.