Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 | 10:09 p.m.
FRESNO, Calif. — The feeling from Saturday night, when UNLV got outplayed by Boise State in a 77-72 road loss, still permeated throughout Monday’s practice at the Thomas & Mack Center. The difference was the reaction to that feeling had changed from the disbelief and despondence of a losing locker room to the anger and urgency of a team that knows the end is a game closer and it's a game further back than it should be.
“I did a lot of thinking, as everyone did after Saturday night, and felt like 22 games into the season our mindset is not where it needs to be,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.
So Rice and the coaching staff set out to change that, getting into and challenging the players in a way rarely seen this season. No one was exempt, including the scout team, which answered with one of its best practices of the season.
“After a disappointing loss like that, everyone’s trying to focus on being more physical, more disciplined,” said sophomore Barry Cheaney, who was playing the role of Fresno State leading scorer Tyler Johnson (11.9 points per game).
The Rebels (17-5, 4-3) are back on the road Wednesday to play the Bulldogs (7-13, 1-6) at 6 p.m. on Time Warner Cable SportsNet. Struggling in its first year in the Mountain West, Fresno State presents the opportunity for the most winnable of road games in this league. Winnable, that is, if you don’t play like you notched the victory just by making it to the Save Mart Center on time.
“The five guys who start on Wednesday are going to be in a (defensive) stance and are going to bring a sense of urgency that we did not bring to start the Boise State game,” Rice said. “It’s a frustrating deal, because with so much to play for, we didn’t do that.”
Saturday’s home game against New Mexico, which is nearly sold out, could have been for first place. Now that’s unlikely with the Rebels two games back of the Lobos and one behind both Colorado State and Air Force.
And just who those first five on the floor will be Wednesday for UNLV is a bit of a mystery. Shaking up the starting lineup is a common coaching tactic in these situations and that’s what Rice seems to be contemplating. Anthony Bennett and Anthony Marshall, who combined for 43 points against the Broncos, will likely be there. The rest will be determined by what Rice takes away from that Monday practice and Tuesday night’s workout in Fresno.
Cheaney’s not likely to get the call up to the starting lineup but he could play a role in determining who gets the more playing time. The best feeling a scout team player can have in practice, one that Rice is familiar with from his days playing for Jerry Tarkanian, is to make the coaches angry with the first team. And there was plenty of yelling Monday as the coaches tried to break the mentality Rice said he wasn’t happy with.
“We start making shots and coaches are going to get on them because it’s the players’ job to stop us,” Cheaney said.
Time hasn’t run out on the Rebels, but it is running out. That was a key in Rice’s message to his team, talking about valuing the games that are left. Because not only is the end of the regular season about five weeks away, UNLV also doesn’t have the hindrances it did previously this season. That’s what made the Boise loss sting a little more.
“Early in the year we can explain some of the reasons, whether it’s the third game of the year, whether it’s Khem (Birch) is not eligible, whether it’s Mike (Moser) hurt his elbow,” Rice said, “but we’ve been at full strength now for a few weeks.”
Desperation is a buzzword around the program right now. Rice wants the Rebels to play defense like a desperate team all the time, which they clearly didn’t Wednesday.
The mood has changed in the past few days, as it should when opportunity slips away. The challenge is to capture the right kind of new mindset and hold on to it so that practices like Monday are born out of desire rather than necessity.