Friday, Jan. 13, 2012 | 2 a.m.
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- Pittsburgh transfer forward Khem Birch commits to UNLV
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- 2011-12 UNLV Men's Basketball Schedule
- All UNLV Men's Basketball Coverage
UNLV basketball coach Dave Rice prefaced his answer by saying how happy he’s been overall with assistant coach Justin Hutson, his first hire this offseason. Recruiting, bonding with the players, on-court instruction; everything.
But, yeah, Hutson’s value is especially high this week, with No. 12 UNLV (16-2) set to open conference play Saturday at 1 p.m. at No. 22 San Diego State (14-2), where Hutson spent the past five seasons as an assistant.
“There’s no doubt it’s an advantage when you have a guy on your staff who understands and knows San Diego State personnel, who knows the things that they run,” Rice said.
Last week the Rebels traveled to and defeated Hutson’s alma mater, Cal State Bakersfield. This time the opponent has more recent personal connections for the coach, and there’s a lot more on the line for UNLV.
“It’s going to be really different sitting on that side of the bench, that side of the floor and playing against the guys who I was involved in recruiting,” Hutson said. “And coaching against the coaches who gave me a good opportunity.”
The Rebels have lost five straight and eight of the past nine against the Aztecs. Fifth-year senior guard Kendall Wallace was the only current player on the roster the last time UNLV won in San Diego.
Junior guard Anthony Marshall said the team is well aware of their struggles but they aren’t really using it as motivation.
“In the back of your mind, you know it,” Marshall said. “The community doesn’t let you forget it and as a basketball team you don’t forget it, but you can’t go into the game looking at it as a revenge game.”
Besides, there are plenty of reasons to get up for this game without looking to the past.
It’s the Mountain West opener for both nationally ranked teams, a litmus test for what they need to do to contend for the conference title.
The sell-out crowd, especially the Aztec student section, The Show, will be hyped from the opening tip. Most of their attention will likely be focused on the Rebels' leading scorer Chace Stanback, both for his combined 4-for-24 shooting the last two trips to San Diego as well as his offseason DUI arrest.
But Stanback’s game has reached another level this season. He’s among the nation’s leaders in 3-point shooting percentage (46.8) and is hitting 50.3 percent from the field.
And over the last two games, Marshall is averaging 15.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
“As a basketball player these are the games you look forward to,” Marshall said. “These are the games you circle on your calendar.”
With eight days between games, Rice was concerned about keeping up the competitive fire. He battled that with a full scrimmage, uptempo practices and not taking two days off in a row.
As the game nears, Rice and the players said they feel the rest has been productive, both for getting healthy — several of the players and coaches are getting over colds — and getting better. Now it’s almost time to begin their bid for the conference title by taking on the 2011 champs.
“Some of the names are certainly different — they lost some experienced guys — but the common denominator is that they’re still winning,” Rice said. “And they’re extremely good at home. … Coach (Steve) Fisher and his staff have built a culture of winning in San Diego.”
Hutson was a big part of that. Now he’s on the other side, in charge of the Rebels’ scouting report this week.
For his part, Hutson downplayed his significance, saying he isn’t sure just how much he’ll make a difference on the outcome.
“Is it going to translate into some special advantage?” Hutson said. “A lot of people know Kobe Bryant, too, they watch him every day, but what are they going to do about it? I’m not comparing any of those guys to Kobe, but yeah, it might give us a slight advantage because we know a few things they might do, but not too much.”
Whether that’s just modesty or accuracy will be played out Saturday afternoon. But in a game that puts a priority on confidence, having the opponents’ former coach on your bench can’t be a bad thing.
“The way I’ve characterized it with the team is that one win or loss to start conference doesn’t make or break our conference season,” Rice said. “Having said that … we will absolutely be ready to play.”