BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Three months ago, New Mexico was viewed almost unanimously as the Mountain West’s top dog entering the 2011-12 season.
Sixteen wins later, UNLV now finds itself in that chair. The last piece of the non-conference puzzle fell into place on Thursday night, as the 17th-ranked Rebels (16-2) easily dispatched of Cal State Bakersfield in an odd spot on their schedule, 89-57.
When UNLV tips off Mountain West play next Saturday at No. 24 San Diego State, it’ll find itself wearing the invisible crown placed on New Mexico’s head back in October.
The Rebels and coach Dave Rice are just fine with that.
“We feel like we’re good enough to carry that title, and we want to be No. 1 at the end of the season,” sophomore forward Mike Moser said. “So why not start at the beginning like that?”
Added Rice: “I think it’s a good problem to have to know that we’re thought highly of. The only thing it guarantees is that we’re going to get everyone’s best shot, but that’s how it always is. It’s a wide open race. I saw a stat recently that we’re one of only three conferences (along with the Big Ten and Big 12) where every team in the league has a winning record. And everyone is playing well right now, particularly on their home floors.”
Rice also reminisced back to Nov. 29 when the team landed in Burbank, Calif., before bussing down to UC Santa Barbara for what was eventually a thrilling double-overtime win. He said that between that point and Wednesday, when the team again flew into Burbank, he was impressed with how every member of the program had shown some form of improvement.
In a game that in the grand scheme of the 2011-12 season, UNLV showed on Thursday against an overmatched and overwhelmed opponent just how dangerous it is entering what should be a wild Mountain West season.
• Moser pointed out how much better UNLV is now at defending the 3-point arc than it was just a few weeks back, which became a much bigger point of emphasis after that helped bury them in ugly losses at Wichita State and Wisconsin.
Cal State Bakersfield came into Thursday’s game showing an impressive 41 percent from 3-point range, but the Rebels only allowed them to take 12 long range attempts on the night, hitting just four of them.
• Rice mentioned his team’s penchant for playing its best basketball this season after halftime. That was again the case on Thursday, when the Rebels opened up what was a 38-27 game at the break and turned it quickly into a laugher with a 16-2 run right out of the locker room.
• Rice said that his team is at its best when senior guard Oscar Bellfield is hitting his shots, and despite a recent slump that saw him score in double figures just twice in UNLV’s last nine games, he went 5-of-8 from the floor, scoring 13 points to go with five assists. He’s also now benefitting from getting more rest in the first half, as Rice said he’s trying to get the team’s floor general two chances to rest in the first halves of games now.
Most important, though, is UNLV simply getting into a rhythm within its uptempo offense much like the one it found in the second half Thursday night as a whole.
The Rebels have hit that zone several times this season, and it’s been a major factor in the program’s best start since the 1992-93 season.
In the second half in Bakersfield, UNLV was 20-of-39 from the floor, hit six 3-pointers and had 10 assists across from only turnover. To boot, they shut down the Roadrunners on the glass, which was a bit of an issue before the intermission.
The added spice on top was even more displays of the swagger UNLV is showing when it really gets rolling. Whether it was Justin Hawkins confidently snapping off 3-point makes from the corner, Anthony Marshall hammering down a pair of late dunks in traffic or reserve Karam Mashour’s thunderous, memorable late-game slam in the face of CSUB’s Andre Jackson, it’s clear that the Rebels right now are just having fun.
“Offensively, I think our transition has improved to where teams can’t really handle us when we get in push mode,” Moser said. “Every team’s goal is to go undefeated in non-conference, but as hard as that is to do, I think we feel pretty good about the 16 games that we did win.”
Thursday’s leftovers …
• Numbers of Note: Moser scored 17 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, giving him eight double-doubles on the year … Justin Hawkins also scored 17 points, including a 4-of-7 showing from 3-point range … Anthony Marshall tallied 12 points and six rebounds … Reggie Smith, in only 13 minutes off of the bench, had five assists and no turnovers … UNLV out-rebounded CSUB 48-33.
• The team will bus back to Burbank and fly to Vegas on Friday, and the Rebels will be given the rest of the day off. They’ll return to practice on Saturday and also get Sunday off. Rice said that with no game until next Saturday, the team will likely hold a full 5-on-5 scrimmage either Tuesday or Wednesday.
• Moser, who chipped off half of one of his front teeth in the Dec. 23 win over California after hitting his face on the floor, will get the damage repaired over the weekend. “I’ll be pretty again soon,” he joked after the game.
• Pitt transfer Khem Birch’s official visit to UNLV will begin on Friday, and go through Sunday morning. He’ll attend the team’s Saturday practice. The skilled power forward, who last year was a McDonald’s All-American and will have 2.5 years of eligibility at his new school starting after the fall 2012 semester, will choose soon between UNLV, Florida, New Mexico State, Gonzaga and Oregon State. He’s already visited Florida and New Mexico State.