Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, Jan. 11, 2013 | 2 a.m.
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In between what may be the three toughest games of the entire conference season, No. 24 UNLV (13-3) returns home Saturday night at 7 to play Air Force (9-5) on Time Warner Cable SportsNet.
The Rebels’ had their chances in a 65-60 loss at New Mexico on Wednesday, and next week in road games at San Diego State and Colorado State they will likely have more opportunities to win or lose a game in the final minutes. This one should be a little different, as long as UNLV keeps focused.
The Falcons are traditionally a difficult matchup because of their offensive sets, which include a lot of backdoor cuts, though that may be a little different under first-year coach Dave Pilipovich. Basically, this is the type of game UNLV needs to make easy on itself because of how many more difficult ones still await.
Here are five ways the Rebels can do that:
1. Keep the loss in perspective
UNLV hasn’t opened conference play with a victory since the 2008-09 season, and you have to go back another year for its last league-opening win on the road.
Not only that, New Mexico is really good. The Lobos don’t have the same type of talent as UNLV, but they’ve been playing together longer — center Alex Kirk is the only new guy to the rotation — and they enjoy a nice home court advantage.
And as for the fouls, New Mexico ranks second in the country in free throw attempts per field goal attempt, according to kenpom.com, so it’s not like that came out of nowhere.
That was never a game the Rebels could chalk up as a victory and it’s important to remember the regular-season league champ this year will likely have at least three losses.
2. Prepare for more double teams
This first game was a special circumstance because New Mexico coach Steve Alford had a full eight days in between games to prepare for the Rebels. Obviously UNLV’s other opponents won’t have that long, but the game tape will reinforce what they likely already planned to do: double-team Anthony Bennett.
The freshman forward’s foul trouble was a big factor in keeping him relatively quiet — 12 points and six rebounds — and it also had a lot to do with the Lobos’ guards or a second forward doubling down on almost every entry pass. There were times when Bennett did really well passing out of that and finding open shooters, but in other instances he looked the most uncomfortable he’s been since UTEP bullied him all game.
Besides just getting more comfortable with two guys hounding him — something most players of his caliber get used to in high school, but most guys don’t play at Findlay Prep — Bennett can work on where his kick outs are going.
Most of the time when he catches an entry pass in the post and gets double teamed, he passes right back to the guy who had the ball. With practice, Bennett could work on instead finding the teammate, who will usually be at the top of the key or the opposite block, whose defender has left to help cover Bennett. That skips a step as the Rebels try to swing the ball around while the defense scrambles back to position.
The Rebels could also try re-posting Bennett, where he catches a pass, waits for the double team before passing back out, then immediately gets another entry pass while the second defender was running back to his spot. That occasionally can catch a defense off guard.
3. Get off to a good start
There’s no better way to put the New Mexico game out of their minds than to start the Air Force game strong and get the home crowd excited.
The Rebels in the Rice era have always been vastly different at home than the road so this may be more of an expectation than a goal, but it’s still important. UNLV wants to feel good about itself after the loss and this is the best way to go about it.
4. Work Moser into the regular rotation
Junior forward Mike Moser said Tuesday he felt better than before he suffered a dislocated elbow. While he may believe that, it’s one thing to feel better and it’s another to play up to that standard.
In two games since the Dec. 9 game at Cal, Moser’s a total of 2-for-7 shooting and he’s averaging 13 minutes per game. While the on-court performance may not warrant it, Moser’s best route to getting back to his old self is more time on the court, where he can work into a rhythm. It’s difficult for anybody to produce while playing in spurts and Moser is no different.
If the Rebels are going to contend for the league crown they will need Moser filling a significant role. The sooner he can do that, the better.
5. Win the final five minutes
No matter what the score is going into the final minutes — up big, down big or somewhere in between — it should be a focus to win at the end. This isn’t a different from the goals in every game, but after a struggling in a late-game situation there should be an extra emphasis on how the final possessions play out.
Players often talk about playing a full 40 minutes no matter what the score, and the Rebels are no exception. They mention it all the time, and this is a chance to put that on the court.