Following a week of misery on the road that ended with UNLV two games behind New Mexico for first place in the Mountain West with four left to play, Tuesday night brought something for the Rebels to feel good about.
The Lobos, now ranked 18th in the country after taking a stranglehold on the league’s top spot, saw their seven-game win streak snapped with a surprising 71-63 setback at Colorado State to kick off the week in conference play.
If No. 21 UNLV (22-6 overall, 6-4 MWC) can take down Boise State (13-12, 3-7) on Wednesday night in their 7:15 p.m. return to the Thomas & Mack Center, there will still be an outside shot for the Rebels to potentially grab a piece of the MWC title.
But that’s something for those on the outside of the program to banter about. Inside, there are much more pressing issues.
“Our only focus today and tomorrow is winning the game on Wednesday,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said following Monday’s practice. “Once we see how that works out, then we can start worrying about those kinds of things.
“Right now, we’re not taking anything for granted. We’re not taking for granted that we’re even in the NCAA tournament. We need to win games and continue to improve.”
Along with winning the Mountain West’s regular season crown, a goal of UNLV entering its first season under Rice was to not lose back-to-back games.
That one is no longer attainable after 102-97 overtime upset defeat at TCU last Tuesday was followed by Saturday’s 65-45 thumping at New Mexico.
In the scope of the 2011-12 season as a whole for the Rebels, last week was essentially rock bottom.
After leading by 18 points with just over 13 minutes remaining against TCU, UNLV’s defense and prowess on the glass disappeared during an epic second half collapse. Then, UNLV failed to push the pace against New Mexico, and in turn only converted on four of its 17 field goal attempts during Saturday’s second half — easily the team’s worst offensive 20 minutes of the season.
Aside from key starters getting back on track — such as Mike Moser and Chace Stanback, who both struggled mightily in Albuquerque — Rice will also be looking for a spark from his bench this week.
On Saturday, UNLV’s five reserves combined to score only three points in 58 minutes played.
“We need all the guys right now,” Rice said. “Energy off the bench at this time of year is critically important.”
It was a rare off-day for Justin Hawkins, who has been a reliable spark off of the bench all season for UNLV, while Kendall Wallace continues to be held back by a balky right knee and Quintrell Thomas is still very up and down.
Two guys to watch this week to eat up more are sophomores Carlos Lopez and Reggie Smith.
Smith, a Marquette transfer who became eligible in December, has taken a while to get comfortable running the point in Rice’s offensive system. Still, his off-the-charts athleticism was expected to help him work his way into the rotation sooner.
In 15 games, he’s played an average of 6.9 minutes per contest. Rice’s plan was to extend Smith some on Saturday at New Mexico, fighting undersized fire with undersized fire by putting Smith on diminutive Lobo backup point guard Jamal Fenton. Instead, Smith was limited to just seven minutes due to immediate foul trouble.
“I have as much confidence in Reggie as I’ve had in him from the time he became eligible,” Rice said. “You will see Reggie play a lot more minutes moving forward.”
As for Lopez, the 6-foot-11 forward is looking to close out what has been a bit of a frustrating year physically in strong form.
A sprained right ankle before the season opener threw a wrench in things, and the same injury to the same ankle suffered in the first meeting with Boise State back on Jan. 25 set him back even more. Lopez missed two games with the ankle sprain, and in four games since his return, has only scored eight points in 29 total minutes played.
On top of it all, Lopez had to battle the flu all of last week.
With that behind him, it’s the residual effects from the ankle injury that will likely slow Lopez some the rest of the season.
Still, he said he’s looking to use the extended minutes likely to come this week in order to try and find the offensive groove he was in before re-injuring the ankle.
“My quickness is not there, I’m a little timid sometimes to do the things I do in the post, with spin moves and stuff like that, but I’m practicing and getting used to it,” Lopez said. “My game has had to change a lot. But I’m smarter on the court. I’m timing myself up better in terms of blocking shots and boxing out, knowing what my opponent’s going to do before he does it. I’m getting good at that — the ‘old man’ game.
“At this point, it’s all mental, and it’s if I want to play or not. I want to play, so I have to suck it up and move on.”
It’s the type of approach UNLV needs team-wide heading into a week where it could get some of its swagger back. Despite improved play of late, Boise State and Saturday’s opponent — Air Force — find themselves at the bottom of the Mountain West standings. Both have also struggled mightily on the road for the better part of the season. On the flip side, the Rebels have been at their best on their home floor.
The talk of championships and NCAA tournament seeding will have to wait.
“We did not play well last week, bottom line — We didn’t play consistent enough to win games on the road, that’s just a fact,” Rice said. “There may come a time two weeks from now when we can talk about that, but we’ve got to get better.”