Friday, Dec. 23, 2011 | 2 a.m.
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The UNLV basketball team has faced, and fared well against, one of the nation’s toughest non-conference schedule. But Friday’s game at 2 p.m. against California is the first one of those challenges they get to face at home.
The matinee is the team’s last activity before the holiday break, but the players aren’t thinking about that yet. They can’t look ahead and expect to win against the Bears.
“They are a top 25 team, whether they’re in the top 25 right now or not,” junior forward Mike Moser said.
Cal (10-2) started the season at No. 24 in the Associated Press poll, and then dropped out the same week as UNLV after a 64-63 loss at San Diego State. The Bears are currently receiving five votes, which puts them at No. 37.
No. 21 UNLV (12-2) has started to learn that opponents’ will play against their own style just to slow down the Rebels. But Cal, much like Wisconsin, comes by it honestly.
Coach Mike Montgomery runs a motion offense built on a lot of screens that wear down the defense, and the clock.
“A lot of different looks in their offense,” Moser said. “They run about a hundred thousand plays.”
“There’s no reason for them to change,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.
The player leading the Bears’ attack is a familiar face.
Gutierrez was an All-Pac 10 first team and all-conference defensive team selection last season. This year, he ranks second on the team in points (13.9 per game), assists (3.8) and three-point field goal percentage (53). He also pulls down five rebounds per game.
“We all watched him at Findlay Prep and we’ve seen his progression as a player,” Rice said. “He’s a complete player. He’s a versatile guy who in our mind makes them go.”
Gutierrez’s only flaw is that he leads the team in turnovers. And that, as usual, is exactly what the Rebels will try to attack in order to get the pace up to their standards.
“Usually if things go our way, and we’re the aggressor, we can dictate tempo as much as we want to,” Moser said.
UNLV will get some extra help with that Friday. Forward Quintrell Thomas, who missed the UTEP game last Monday because of a turf toe injury, is cleared to play, and Reggie Smith, who made his debut in that game, figures to become more of a viable option as he gets into game shape.
Thomas especially will be interesting to watch because it will be his first game since scoring 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting against Illinois. That game was solid for all of the Rebels’ big men, who combined to score 44 of the team’s 64 points.
A similar output is possible, and maybe even necessary, against the Bears. Cal’s strength is its guards, and a couple of its often-used post players — freshman David Kravish and sophomore Richard Solomon — are underclassmen.
A physical attack worked against Illini sophomore big man Meyers Leonard. That may be the way to go once again.
Whatever the plan, the Rebels will have to implement it as soon as the game begins. Their trouble with slow starts could be a big problem against Cal. Good thing they don’t have all day to worry about it.
“I’m kind of excited for the start time,” Moser said, “just because I don’t have to wait the whole day to get in the game and play.”