UNLV’s progress will be put to the test Saturday at North Carolina

The 20th-ranked Rebels are playing better ball lately than unranked UNC, but the Tar Heels have won their last 62 non-conference home games

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Sam Morris

UNLV’s Anthony Marshall drives to the basket against the University of North Carolina during the Las Vegas Invitational championship game Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011 at the Orleans Arena. The Rebels upset the number one ranked Tar Heels 90-80.

RALEIGH, N.C. — No matter what the 20th-ranked Rebels (11-1) may have seen on tape or heard others say about their opponent, the important fact to remember is they’re still going to play a college basketball game at North Carolina. And the road team rarely walks away from the Dean Smith Center with a victory.

In fact, the last non-conference opponent to go to Chapel Hill and defeat North Carolina (9-3) was Illinois. In 2005.

This may not be the same caliber of UNC team — the Tar Heels recently lost by 18 to a middling Texas squad — but at home they’re still a force to be reckoned with.

“Any time you can go up to Chapel Hill and get a win it’s big for your resume, and they’re probably looking at it the same way that it would be big to beat UNLV,” said senior guard Anthony Marshall. “It’s a big game for both teams.”

Saturday’s game tips at 11 a.m. Las Vegas time on ESPN2.

For UNLV, this is a chance to pick up a marquee non-conference victory before beginning league play in arguably the second best conference in the country. For UNC, it’s also an opportunity to get a big non-conference win as well as avenge its loss as the No. 1 team in the Orleans Arena last year.

That Tar Heel team had four first-round draft picks but still lost 90-80. This version of UNC only has one top-10 prospect — 6-foot-9 sophomore James Michael McAdoo — though it’s not like he’s playing with a bunch of rec-league players. Reggie Bullock, a 6-7 junior, shoots 51 percent behind the three-point line and scores 1.337 points per possession, the 14th-best number in the country.

“They haven’t played their best basketball as of late, but we always seem to get a team’s best game,” Marshall said.

As a team UNC isn’t good at getting to the free-throw line, but it is great at grabbing offensive rebounds, ranking 18th in the country in that category, according to kenpom.com.

UNLV is occasionally a mess on the road, struggling at Portland and UTEP before pulling out narrow victories. There was also a one-point win at Cal, though that game is more indicative of how the Rebels may need to play down the stretch to win Saturday.

“Games like that build you for games like this,” Marshall said.

Maybe, but the best thing UNLV has going for it isn’t experience. It’s pace. Last year’s game totaled 170 points, and no one expects the teams to slow down this time around.

“They’re going to try to play fast and we’re going to try to play fast, so defensive transition will be extremely important,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.

Despite missing practice on Wednesday and Thursday, Rice said he doesn’t expect Marshall to be limited by game time. The senior point guard reaggravated a strained calf muscle in the game against Canisius, playing through it much of the second half.

If Marshall would be forced to play limited minutes, UNLV could be in serious trouble. Freshman Katin Reinhardt has made some solid strides at point guard, but this isn’t the type of environment you want to be forced to play him extended minutes running the offense.

In other Rebels injury-related news, there’s a chance junior forward Mike Moser, who practiced Wednesday for the first time since dislocating his right elbow on Dec. 9 at Cal, could dress for the game, possibly as a decoy. It’s more likely that he’ll remain in street clothes, but Moser in uniform would certainly add some intrigue to an already interesting game.

In UNLV’s only loss this season, an 83-79 home defeat on Nov. 23 to Oregon, the Rebels didn’t play like the better team. While there have certainly been struggles since then, Rice has been happy with the direction his team has taken in the ensuing month. Now it’s time to find out if that’s enough to walk into North Carolina and win.

“I’m excited about how much better we’ve gotten since the Oregon game, especially in terms of our guys understanding defensive concepts and giving a more sustained effort,” Rice said. “We’re going to need every bit of that Saturday.”

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

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  1. Why not dress Moser for decoy purposes?

  2. Reggie Bullock isn't playing today. He suffered a concussion in practice on Thursday.