No. 21 UNLV out to continue perfect run at home against Air Force

Rebels on verge of posting first perfect Thomas & Mack record since 1991-92, will continue to try and schedule aggressively.

There was one stat from UNLV’s 75-58 blowout of Boise State on Wednesday night, located in small print at the bottom of the official box score, that said just as much as anything else above it.

Attendance: 14,409.

“I didn’t think about it (at the time) because we were coming off of two losses, but I was grateful for the support from our fans,” first-year UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “It’s so good for our current guys, so good for our recruits to know that even though we had a difficult week last week, the fans are still behind us, showed up and helped us win.”

The turnout was a pleasant surprise for some, as following rough stretches late in the season over the past few years, home attendance has tended to lose some steam for non-marquee league games.

Several factors have contributed to the consistently strong turnouts as the 2011-12 season has progressed. Aside from the product on the floor, the branding and cohesiveness of the student section has helped. Also, the buzz that was created earlier in the season by a resounding upset of then-No. 1 North Carolina and a series of other significant wins has proven to have staying power with the entire fan base.

But it’s hard to ignore just how good that product on the floor has been at the Thomas & Mack Center this season.

Saturday’s 1 p.m. tilt against Air Force (13-12 overall, 3-8 Mountain West) is one of two remaining home games left on the schedule for UNLV (23-6, 7-4). The finale will come next Saturday night against Wyoming.

If the Rebels can sweep those two games, it will give them a perfect 16-0 mark at home on the season, marking the first time they’ve won each home tilt on the schedule since the 1991-92 season.

Especially following last week’s losses at TCU and New Mexico, the team’s play away from home has been highly criticized this season, as the product away from the Mack has been inconsistent at best.

UNLV is 14-0 at home this season, winning those games by an average margin of 19.9 points, and they’ve claimed all but two of those wins by double digits.

In conference play alone, UNLV is 5-0 at home, shooting 49.8 percent from the floor as a team and 38.7 percent from 3-point range. Away from the Mack? The Rebels are 2-4, with those two wins both coming in overtime, and those percentages dip drastically to 42.2 and 26.5, respectively.

Even for Rice, it’s tough at this point to put a finger on exactly what it is that makes UNLV look like so much better of a team at home than on the road. But opponents appear to suffer from the same ills that the Rebels have when they leave Las Vegas — Discomfort.

“You’re never quite as comfortable (on the road), despite what the conventional thinking may be from people,” he said. “I can speak from experience at BYU and coming in here, you couldn’t run your normal stuff, and UNLV pressured us out of it, so we had to go make plays. We try to pressure people out of stuff.”

That was the case on Wednesday night, especially when compared to the overtime win UNLV had to scratch and claw to pull out on the road against Boise State a month ago, when the Broncos dictated the pace of the game for much of the night.

In the rematch, Boise State turned the ball over 14 times, compared to registering only eight assists. A series of backcourt traps also prevented them from setting up much offense. In turn, they were rushed, and 30 of the Broncos’ 56 shot attempts were from long range. Hitting only seven of them, Boise State essentially shot its way out of the game early while the Rebels got whatever they wanted on the other end.

UNLV has been able to do that to many of its opponents this season at the Mack, but also contributing to that was a home schedule lacking marquee opponents in the non-conference season. Outside of games against rival Nevada-Reno and Cal, the home slate lacked its normal amount of punch.

Rice and his staff are trying to keep that from being the case in the coming years.

One factor that hurt the home schedule this season was Louisville, who was supposed to play in the Mack in December, suspending its series with the Rebels until the 2013-14 season. When it resumes, the Cardinals will be playing in Las Vegas first. On that same non-conference schedule, UNLV is already booked to travel to face Arizona for the start of a home-and-home series, and the Rebels will also host Illinois at the Mack in a return game from this year’s trip to face the Illini in Chicago.

There are still a few vacant spots on next year’s non-conference home schedule, which right now is highlighted by a Thanksgiving weekend tournament at the Mack that will feature Iowa State, Oregon and Cincinnati in a two-day event — Three teams who could end up in the NCAA tournament next month and should still be strong a year from now.

In attempting to fill the open slots, especially given how good UNLV has proven to be at home in its first season under Rice, the Rebels are willing to welcome anyone into their house.

“We’re going to continue to play an aggressive schedule — There’s nobody we won’t start a home-and-home with,” Rice said. “It has become increasingly more difficult to get people. People perceive that we’re very good at home, it’s the way it goes.

“But that’s a good problem to have.”

More on Air Force

In the first meeting of the season, UNLV escaped Colorado Springs with a 65-63 overtime win. Despite going just 1-of-10 from the floor and 0-for-5 from deep on the night, Chace Stanback helped save the Rebels with a pair of key defensive plays in overtime … The Falcons are 2-2 under interim head coach Dave Pilipovich, who relieved Jeff Reynolds just before a 72-61 home loss to Boise State on Feb. 11 and is a strong candidate to land the full-time gig after the season is over … The focal point for Air Force, as per usual, is 6-foot-6 junior wing Michael Lyons, who in four games since Jeff Reynolds’ firing is averaging 21 points per contest while shooting 53.6 percent from the floor.