UNLV basketball:

Moser a game-time decision for tonight’s game in his hometown

The Rebels’ junior forward is dealing with a left hip strain that could keep him out of a game he’s been looking forward to all year

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV forward Mike Moser looks at the scoreboard during the Rebels’ game against Hawaii on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV won 77-63.

Mike Moser

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MIke Moser hugs his mother Jeanne Moser while posing for a photo after UNLV's exhibition game against Dixie State Nov. 7, 2012. Jeanne Moser was visiting not only to see Mike play but to celebrate his birthday.

The next time Mike Moser returns to his hometown of Portland to play a basketball game, he’ll likely do so in an NBA jersey. The thought of that day may have to be enough to get him through Tuesday’s homecoming with No. 21 UNLV (5-1) because when the Rebels play Portland at 8 p.m. on ESPNU, the junior may be confined to the bench.

Moser didn’t play in the final minutes of Saturday’s victory against Hawaii on the orders of team trainer Dave Tomchek, who requested Moser be used only in an emergency situation. The official prognosis is a left hip strain that may be tied to the slightly strained left groin that forced Moser to miss a handful of practices before the season. He sat out on Sunday and Monday, with Rice calling him a game-time decision.

On one hand, it makes perfect sense for UNLV to rest one of its most important players if he’s at anything less than 100 percent. The Rebels can win this game without him — Portland is 3-4, though all three victories have come at home — and ensuring Moser is healthy for the conference season is of more value than risking him in one nonconference game.

On the other hand, there will be approximately 130 family and friends in the Chiles Center (capacity 4,852), and Moser has talked about this game since at least the past summer.

“Portland means everything,” Moser said. “That’s where it all started.”

Moser was born in Dallas but soon moved to Portland with his adoptive mother, Jeanne, who owns an ice cream shop in the Rose City. The two are close, and Jeanne Moser recently was in Las Vegas to celebrate her son’s birthday and Thanksgiving. Watching him play in Portland would be something extra special for both of them.

“As exciting as it is for the player to go back, it’s even more exciting for his family and his friends,” Rice said.

Dating to his playing days, Rice said he’s always liked playing games near a player’s hometown. Now that he’s a head coach, he has the ability to make it happen, though one trip last year didn’t exactly work out.

UNLV played Illinois in Chicago, the hometown of Reggie Smith, who has since transferred from UNLV to play for former Rebels assistant Jay Spoonhour at Eastern Illinois. That was supposed to be Smith’s first game after sitting out the first semester, but it was actually a day too early for all of his grades to be processed.

The result was a solid nonconference victory without the homecoming as Smith had to stay in Las Vegas. Moser will make this trip, but for the long-term benefit of the team, he may simply be a spectator, or at least a limited contributor.

Moser would have missed this game altogether had his offseason decision regarding the NBA draft gone the other way. Moser said he was serious about jumping to the league after one season at UNLV.

“I felt like it was a good opportunity, but it was an even better opportunity coming back,” Moser said.

A big reason for that was the incoming recruiting class, a group of talent anybody could tell could keep the Rebels nationally relevant. That and Rice’s willingness to let Moser play more on the perimeter was enough to sell him on another year in Las Vegas.

Another season gives Moser a chance to enhance his draft stock — most projections had him late in the first round to the middle of the second — while trying to make a deep tournament run. It also gives NBA scouts another year to pick apart his game, something Moser said he’s aware of but not worried about. He’s just trying to improve the things he already does well — primarily rebounding and pushing the ball in transition — while also becoming a better shooter.

As a self-described late bloomer, Moser isn’t too concerned about fluctuating in the draft because playing professionally didn’t occur to him as an option until he reached college. As long as somebody takes him, that’s good enough.

Moser said he was about 5-foot-10 in eighth grade and sprouted to 6-6 by his junior year, only then realizing his talent and potential. A key to discovering that was his AAU coach, Kumbeno Memory, who led the team sponsored by Portland native Ime Udoka, a 13-year pro who recently joined the San Antonio Spurs coaching staff.

“He was a big part of me being here today,” Moser said of Memory.

Besides protecting his health, the other possible benefits of playing the Pilots without Moser are more court time for Quintrell Thomas and/or Carlos Lopez-Sosa and more focus on the task at hand, which is winning a road game for a team that last year struggled whenever it left home.

“We can’t get so wrapped up in it being the Mike Moser game that we forget about the fact that there’s a team that’s 3-0 at home that we need to be able to play,” Rice said.

Moser’s injury may have solved that problem, though nobody wanted it to happen this way. You can bet Moser will do all the sweet-talking and smiling through any possible pain he needs to in order to get on the court.

He’ll probably get a chance to play in this city again, likely at the Rose Garden arena for or against the Portland Trail Blazers, but nothing is guaranteed. And whenever an opportunity like this comes along, it’s not something you want to miss.

“There’s nothing like the memory of being able to go back to your hometown and play a college basketball game,” Rice said. “… They’ll have that memory forever.”

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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