Thursday, March 15, 2012 | 2 a.m.
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Las Vegas Sun reporters Taylor Bern and Ray Brewer take a look at the UNLV basketball team's opening round opponent in the NCAA Tournament — Pac-12 tournament champions Colorado.
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- Get to know Colorado: Brown and Roberson control Buffaloes’ chances for an upset
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Mike Moser peels off his jersey and tosses it to the ground, a sort of mid-scene wardrobe change as the focus shifts from one court to another.
It’s Monday evening in a particularly warm Mendenhall Center, and practice ended 30 minutes ago. The NCAA Tournament, the moment that will ultimately define UNLV’s season, is three days away.
Win one or two games and coach Dave Rice’s first season at his alma mater is a success. Lose to 11-seed Colorado and the positive steps the Rebels took this season will be tossed away by outsiders. That’s the “proliferation of the NCAA Tournament,” as Rice calls it. “It’s truly become the end-all,” he said.
That point becomes obvious just looking at the Rebels’ last two NCAA Tournament games: a 2010 heartbreaker to Northern Iowa and a blowout to Illinois in 2011. Those losses are at the forefront of the 6th-seeded Rebels’ minds.
UNLV’s key to avoiding a third consecutive first-game exit is laughing and shirtless, a look Moser, a redshirt sophomore, wears well on his 6-foot-8, 210-pound frame.
After practice, he and roommate Karam Mashour go through extra shooting drills, a lighthearted yet focused variation of Around the World plus running.
If UNLV’s leading scorer (14.1 points per game), rebounder (10.6) and de facto weather vane is feeling any pressure going into his first postseason, you can’t see it.
“I really didn’t have the experience coming into the season to do the things that I did, but I did them,” Moser said. “Our coaches, I know they’re confident in me, know that I’m ready to do this. It’s just about me doing it, taking my team to the next level.
“I’m ready to be that guy.”
Jeanne Moser wasn’t surprised by her son’s breakout season.
He started playing basketball as a 4-year-old in a Boys & Girls Club league. From that point on, there was never a long stretch of time when he wasn’t either playing, talking or thinking about the game. He wore out the net of the Mosers’ outdoor hoop.
“Our mail carrier, she knew him personally because every time she’d come by the house (in the summer), he was out there shooting baskets,” she said.
Jeanne Moser spent her son’s middle- and high-school years as his personal taxi service, shuttling him from gym to gym in search of the next game. She saw him go to AAU tournaments with his team, I-5 Elite. Those games put him on the national recruiting radar.
She wasn’t surprised that he started this season with five double-doubles in his first eight games. She came down from Portland for the Las Vegas Invitational at the Orleans Arena, one of three trips she made to games this season. She was in the stands for his official coming-out party, a 16-point, 18-rebound effort in UNLV’s seminal 90-80 victory against then-No. 1 North Carolina.
Like the AAU tournaments, that performance put Moser in the national consciousness and solidified his position as a leader on this year’s team.
From that point, the team’s success has reflected Moser’s ups and downs. In 26 victories, he’s averaging 15.3 points and 11.7 rebounds per game while shooting 49.3 percent from the floor. In eight losses, those numbers drop to 10.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 33 percent shooting.
Rice said he tries not to put too much pressure on Moser but acknowledges that the Rebels are a different team when he’s playing well. Teammates recognize it.
“When Mike’s doing his thing, it just creates so much for everyone else,” junior guard Anthony Marshall said.
Rice said the coaching staff started taking for granted that Moser would pull down 10 rebounds every game. When that’s suddenly absent from the box score, as it was in UNLV’s past four losses, the game plan shifts and the Rebels have struggled to adjust.
Moser doesn’t consider that to be extra pressure. It’s the same expectation he has of himself.
“If I’m out here playing hard, I’m going to get 10 rebounds,” he said. “I’m not saying that trying to be cocky, I just know … if I’m out here playing the right way, playing my hardest and getting teammates involved, that stuff’s just going to come with it.”
Tony Broadous met Moser as a seventh-grader and knew the youngster would have a chance to one day make money playing basketball.
Moser grew to be a 6-foot-6 freshman starting on Broadous’ varsity squad at Grant High in Portland, Ore. His height was an obvious advantage, but Broadous was more impressed with Moser’s ability to pass and handle the ball on the open court. To the displeasure of parents and other coaches who felt he should be down on the block, Broadous allowed a pool-cue thin Moser the freedom to grab rebounds and handle the ball himself as a “one-man fast break.” That same play — Moser sprinting down the court, ball in his hands and destruction on his mind — has created many of his highlights this season.
“We wanted to make sure we were able to give him a chance to develop those skills,” Broadous said. “We’re like, ‘This guy can play on the perimeter as good as our regular little guys, and for him to get ready for the next level, we’ve got to give him a chance to develop that.’”
That was Moser’s goal, too. His mother drove him to the downtown gym at 7 a.m. for workouts before school. He went through exhaustive shooting sessions before games, a routine he often repeats on UNLV game days. A bigger stage awaited, and Moser didn’t believe talent alone would get him there.
“I was always thinking about the next level just as much as I was playing in high school,” Moser said.
Critics this year say he’s still doing the same thing.
The talk got louder during Moser’s worst stretch this season, a four-game February swoon that started with an embarrassing loss at New Mexico and ended with a disappointing defeat at Colorado State. They pointed at those games with the same comments Broadous heard when Moser was in high school — “Too many outside shots,” “He’s just trying to show off instead of win.”
For the year, 32 percent of Moser’s shot attempts have been 3-pointers. That went to 38 percent, a small variance, during the swoon. It’s true that Moser’s potential pro future would require the perimeter skills he’s worked on since high school, but those same skills are what made his emergence possible. Even the threat of his 3-pointer creates opportunities and matchups for drives to the paint that UNLV, when Moser and the offense are clicking, has taken full advantage of.
As for the NBA, Broadous said Moser used to talk more about what he would do in college than beyond that. The NCAA Tournament is a stage that has launched many pro careers, and a starring role could push Moser’s name back into draft conversations. Like his rebounds, though, that would be the result of playing the right way.
“He’s just really concentrating on this level right now. He really feels like if he starts getting sidetracked with a lot of stuff, he’s not going to be able to really focus on what he needs to do right now,” Jeanne Moser said. “That’s really important that he does focus on especially these next games. And there’s just an understanding of ‘Let’s take care of what we need to take care of right now.’”
Stacey Augmon knows how to win in March. And April, for that matter.
UNLV’s assistant coach made four NCAA Tournaments with the Rebels, including 1990’s championship trouncing of Duke on April 2. Moser was born seven months later.
Augmon didn’t know Moser when he was struggling at UCLA and “didn’t look like the same guy,” according to Broadous. Augmon picked up with the rejuvenated, muscular and more motivated version.
Augmon sees the same things the critics do: Missed perimeter shots let the defense off the hook. He also sees the same things Jeanne Moser does: The extra time, sweat and passion he puts into the game.
The best play their best this time of year. Augmon was able to slide into that role over four trips. Moser has to do it in his first, and those countless extra hours of practice may not translate.
“I think he’s ready for it, but I also don’t think he knows what to expect because it’s another level out there,” Augmon said. “You’re playing teams you’re not used to. Bigger. Physical. There are things you can do in our league that you can’t do in the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m pretty sure he’s going to be very surprised, but I know he’s going to step up and prevail over that.”
Mike Moser has busted a bracket before. As a junior, he scored 20 points in Grant’s championship victory, upsetting top-seeded Oregon City 63-56.
Broadous drove a van back from the state tournament in Eugene with a few players, including Moser and Lamar guard Mike James, and the giant bracket in the back.
“It was a perfect moment,” Moser said. “We weren’t into partying. We just took it back to Portland and we were singing songs the whole way there. It was all about camaraderie.”
Three days before the NCAA Tournament, Moser said he’s dreamed about being Duke’s Christian Laettner, catching a pass from Grant Hill and hitting the game-winning shot.
This is the 20th anniversary of that game against Kentucky, and Moser’s eyes light up like he’s going full-steam in the open court thinking about adding his own tournament chapter.
“When the lights shine the brightest, he plays the best,” Broadous said.
Moser hasn’t worked all his life just for this moment. Rather, it will reflect the work he’s put in all his life. The difference is Moser doesn’t have to hope he’s ready.
He knows it.