Rebels basketball:

UNLV’s big men will try to beef up production as Rebels begin tournament play

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV forward Mike Moser yells at Katin Reinhardt after a defensive miscommunication during their game against Fresno State Saturday, March 9, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack Center. Fresno State upset UNLV 61-52.

On Wednesday at noon, UNLV will play at home, but it won’t be like a home game. The Rebels will play conference foe Air Force, but it won’t be like a regular conference game. And considering how the last home conference game went, maybe those are good things.

The Rebels begin play in the Mountain West tournament as the No. 3 seed against the No. 6 seed Falcons on Wednesday in the Thomas & Mack Center. It’s the first game of quarterfinals, a spot UNLV dropped into after ending the regular season with a 61-52 loss to Fresno State on Saturday in the same building.

“You know how things can be so frustrating you’ve just got to laugh at it? That was that game in a nutshell,” UNLV junior Mike Moser said.

Moser will start at power forward Wednesday with Anthony Bennett, who was recently named to the first-team all-Mountain West and was the league’s Freshman of the Year, starting at center. That means the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, Khem Birch, will come off the bench. This is the fourth starting lineup UNLV coach Dave Rice will use in the past five games, though the Senior Day configuration was more of a ceremonial anomaly.

While the back court is full of its own questions and issues — Anthony Marshall (decision making), Katin Reinhardt (shot selection), etc. — it’s the front court that likely will determine just how far UNLV will go in this tournament and the NCAAs, as well. That group has the ability to carry, or bury, the team in one-and-done situations.

It starts with Bennett, who said his left shoulder feels like it’s getting better but he’s still taking it day to day. The team’s leading scorer and rebounder has scored 12 or more just once in the past seven games, failing to crack double digits in five of them.

“We’re OK without (Bennett), but we’re great with him,” said Moser, who added getting Bennett back on track is second only to winning on the team’s priority list.

Lately, Bennett’s been playing with a wrap on his left shoulder to limit mobility and thus limit the nerve pain that’s caused him discomfort. Though the on-court evidence suggests otherwise, Bennett says the shoulder hasn’t been much of an issue and it didn’t limit him against Fresno State.

“I’ve just got to put the injury aside,” he said.

At this point, UNLV will accept Bennett’s defensive limitations as a trade for his offensive production. Without that scoring, though, there’s a large hole in the lineup. That’s where Moser 2.0 comes in.

Moser essentially won the game at UNR with his first-half performance, but his offense again disappeared in the two games since as he shot a combined 7 for 22. The rebounding numbers are there and Moser’s not turning the ball over much, but if not from Bennett, the Rebels need scoring from Moser. That’s because as great as he is on defense, UNLV can’t rely on anything consistent offensively from Birch. So if either Bennett or Moser aren’t on, there’s a large (physical and metaphorical) hole in the Rebels’ offensive production.

Birch played limited minutes (17 per game) over the past two games and attempted only two shots. His court time is based a lot on matchups, so when an opponent plays with four or five guys who can stretch the floor, there’s less room for him.

In the last game against Air Force, Birch played 19 minutes with seven points and three blocks. The Falcons’ unique backdoor-cut, Princeton-style offense could mean another light day for him with more minutes and expectations on Bennett and Moser.

Air Force is a good challenge for the Rebels’ March preparedness. First team all-Mountain West pick Michael Lyons can pick defenses apart in varied ways and the Falcons aren’t giving up on the NCAA Tournament, knowing that three victories in four days punches their ticket.

“You’re not going to just shut them out,” said Marshall, who was the Rebels’ other award honoree with second-team and all-defense distinctions.

The key is to not get discouraged, to play through adversity in a way the team didn’t in a blowout loss at Air Force on Feb. 13. There are many ways for UNLV to win this tournament, but the best is to get its big men on the right track so they can all laugh after the game for happier reasons.

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

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  1. If the Rebels play well Air Force cannot beat them. Will they play well? That is anybodys guess.

  2. How far the Rebels go from here depends on the play of their frontcourt. They have a frontcourt as talented as any other team.

  3. AF +10. Easy money.

  4. AF +10. Easy money.

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    Make sure you come back and let us know how that worked out for you.

  5. Comment removed by moderator. ALL CAPS