Should the Rebels beat UC-Irvine on Wednesday night? Yes. Should it be a comfortable victory? Probably. But is it going to be easy? Hardly.
In fact, I think we've seen enough so far to say that the Rebels won't enjoy a truly "easy" win anytime soon. The team is just too new, too unused to playing together, for everything to click just yet. Even in their easiest win, the opening-night rout of Northern Arizona, there were slight cracks.
The perfect game isn't happening anytime soon. But the Rebels are talented enough to keep winning in the meantime, keep getting better, keep getting locked in. And it should pay off down the stretch, when the team has its full compliment of players and they all know exactly what to do, where to be and when to do it.
So how can they take care of UC-Irvine on Wednesday? Here are five keys to watch as UNLV tries to improve to 4-1 on the season.
A defensive possession doesn't end until a rebound is secured, and the Rebels did not do a good job of protecting the glass in their last game. Iowa State dominated them on the boards (24 offensive rebounds), and it kept the game closer than it should have been. UC-Irvine is no slouch in the rebounding department (44.4 per game, 11th in the nation), so the UNLV bigs will have to do a better job of finding a man and blocking him out. Mike Moser (10.3 rebounds per game) and Anthony Bennett (8.3) have been solid rebounders, but they can't do the job by themselves. Quintrell Thomas has been great in limited minutes (25.4 rebounding percentage, best on the team), but he needs to stay out of foul trouble in order to play a bigger role. We haven't really seen the Rebels play a big lineup yet, with Moser at the 3 and Thomas/Bennett at the 4/5, but it could happen against UC-Irvine if rebounding becomes a problem.
Get Moser going early
If Moser comes out of the gates looking to score, that will be a good sign. He's up to 11.3 points per game (third on the team), but more importantly he's No. 2 in usage rate (16.1 percent) and seems to have turned a corner when it comes to playing alongside Bennett. They both had big performances against Iowa State, and when those two are tearing teams apart around the basket, it makes it so much easier to play Dave Rice's preferred inside-out style. Moser needs lots of touches against Irvine, and I think he'll get them.
Speaking of Bennett, he's been the team's most consistent offensive force this season, but his back flared up and forced him to miss practice on Monday. Rice said he expected Bennett to be good to go against Irvine, but his condition is worth keeping an eye on. Can he handle a workload of 30 minutes against a big, physical front line like Irvine's? A reduced Bennett would not be good news for the Rebels.
A breakout for Bryce
Bryce Dejean-Jones was one of the Rebels' most pleasant surprises on opening night, when he dropped 15 points in 20 minutes. He hit 5-of-7 shots that night, but hasn't come close to that type of efficiency since (33.3 percent shooting in the last three games). Dejean-Jones is a refined perimeter scorer who can produce points in a variety of ways, but he might be better served by letting the offense come to him. It would be great to see him wait for open looks and shoot over 50 percent against Irvine.
Floor time for Cook
Freshman Daquan Cook was supposed to redshirt this season, but with Anthony Marshall experiencing swelling in his knee, Rice announced that Cook will be in uniform against UC-Irvine. If he plays at all it will burn his redshirt, but it might be worth it if Cook can help the offense run more smoothly. Despite being a freshman, he's flashed good passing ability while running the scout team in practice, and he may actually be the best natural distributor on the roster. The Rebels haven't been producing in transition (just 0.868 points per possession on the fast break according to Synergy data, way down from last year's 1.147), and Cook may be able to boost the attack.
Prediction: UNLV 79, UC-Irvine 68
Player of the Game: Mike Moser — 21 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists
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