Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012 | 2 a.m.
- Roscoe Smith a picture of calm amid the uncertainty about his immediate eligibility
- Moser’s new position a focal point in Rebels’ first practice for upcoming Canada tour
- Rebels begin all-important practices for Canada exhibition tour on Saturday
- UNLV incoming freshman Anthony Bennett is cleared by the NCAA
- NCAA Eligibility Center is taking a closer look at incoming Rebel Anthony Bennett
- As new players arrive, UNLV’s Marshall and Hawkins focused on creating a lasting legacy
- Global Sports Classic highlights Rebels’ non-conference schedule
- Analysis: UNLV’s returning players vs. the new additions would make for an interesting game
- Anthony Bennett’s success could mean big things for UNLV’s future with Findlay Prep players
- Possibilities abound: UNLV has a plethora of lineup options for 2012-13
- All UNLV coverage
Each one of those heralded recruits UNLV hauled in pushed the duo further out of the public eye and closer to roster irrelevance. If they couldn’t play more last year, the theory goes, how are they going to find the court now that the overall talent, particularly at power forward, has increased?
It seems like a fair question. It will only be asked more as the season progresses and sophomore transfer Khem Birch becomes eligible after the fall semester.
Their collective answer is symbolized by the 15 pounds Thomas has dropped in the offseason, showing he is determined to be a regular part of the post player rotation.
Or to put it another way: If you want their spots, you’re going to have to take them.
“I’ve been listening to a lot of people talking about how me and Q aren’t even going to play anymore and we’re getting replaced; that’s just motivation,” Lopez said. “That’s stuff we like to hear to use to our advantage.”
They don’t seek out these outside opinions. Lopez, a junior-to-be, deleted his Twitter account. Thomas, one of three seniors on the team, never had one.
They don’t read every story looking for mentions of their name, but in a town so amped for this season that nearly 500 people filled Mendenhall for last Saturday’s initial practice in preparation for next week’s Canadian tour, it’s hard to completely avoid the discussions.
Instead of getting annoyed by the doubt, Lopez and Thomas have stored up every perceived slight and tried to unleash it in the gym. Lopez focused on his overall well-being and strength, anything he can do to try to avoid the injuries that derailed his 2011-12 season.
“Even going to sleep at 8 instead of staying up late,” Lopez said. “Whatever it takes.”
Thomas’ work is evident when you see him in person. Without the extra weight he looks sleek and more muscular than bulky, attributes that have come in handy as he’s worked in practice as an inside-outside forward rather than his traditional center spot.
“I feel like if I was at the 5-spot right now I’d be golden,” Thomas said. “I wasn’t even prepared to be thrown to the wolves like this.”
UNLV coach Dave Rice has said all summer that he would use the Canada trip to try out some guys in different spots, and Thomas is one of them. The switch comes with extra running because Rice has the forward take the ball out of bounds after made baskets and the position often has more athletic players guarding him than a center would.
That has taken some getting used to, Thomas said, but the switch also plays to one of his strengths.
“He’s actually a better face-up shooter than he is a back-to-the basket scorer,” Rice said.
These practices and games give the coaching staff a chance to see how Thomas reacts to the change. If it doesn’t work, it’s easy to move him back to down to the block.
The best-case scenario for both sides is that Thomas finds a comfort zone with a role that moves him out towards the perimeter. That versatility would make it easier to plug him into multiple lineups once the real games start.
And that’s what both Thomas and Lopez want most: to help the team win, not just be on a winning team.
“If the worst comes and I’m not playing 20 minutes, so be it. If our team is winning that’s all that matters,” Lopez said. “But we’re working really hard to play minutes and to make Coach have to make a tough decision on who’s playing and who’s not.”
Rice has taken notice. He appreciates the effort considering no matter how much time either guy ends up playing, both will be counted on for leadership on a team that returns just five scholarship guys who were eligible last year.
“They’ve worked extremely hard to put themselves in the best possible position for minutes,” Rice said.
Their stats from last season are remarkably similar.
Lopez outscored Thomas by one point per game (5.4 to 4.4), but Thomas won the rebounding battle by 0.4 (3.1 to 2.7). Their minutes (11.8 and 11.5), free-throw percentages, blocks and even personal fouls were all just fractions apart. Lopez shot better from the field (63 percent to 56 percent).
After then-sophomore Mike Moser exploded at the beginning of the season and locked up one forward spot, Lopez and Thomas were essentially in a three-man committee with recent grad Brice Massamba, who started 34 games.
During their many talks this summer, Lopez and Thomas reminded each other that under former coach Lon Kruger that could have been either one of them getting those starts. They have the talent, but it must be tailored to Rice’s style.
“Before this coaching staff got here, me and Carlos were ahead of Brice,” Thomas said. “So we were talking about things we have to do in this system to make sure that we play.”
The games in Canada offer a great showcase as Birch, freshman Anthony Bennett and likely junior Roscoe Smith will all be absent. Beyond that, the bottom line is it’s going to take anything and everything they have to stay relevant.
UNLV isn’t getting national attention because of its experienced big men. However, their goal is to be part of the reason the spotlight stays on Las Vegas.
“This year is completely different,” Lopez said. “This is our year.”