UNLV basketball:

Rebels’ lineup changing again for tonight’s game against Omaha

Kendall Smith will start at point guard for UNLV, which tips off at home against a tough Mavericks team at 7 p.m.

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV guard Kendall Smith is defended by UC Santa Barbara guard Eric Childress during their game Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack Center. UC Santa Barbara won the game 86-65.

Kendall Smith could feel something missing from the Rebels’ drubbing against UC Santa Barbara. Because of an injury, the freshman guard will start at point guard Friday against Omaha, and he’s hoping in that role he can supply what UNLV lacked Tuesday.

“We didn’t really have a leader,” Smith said. “Being a freshman, I’m trying to lead these guys.”

It wasn’t meant as a slight against junior guard Deville Smith, who’s out possibly through next week with a sprained MCL in his right knee, but it could be viewed that way. Or against any of the other Rebels who turned in subpar performances in the team’s biggest home blowout since 2003.

Kendall Smith was one of the lone bright spots in the lineup, scoring 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting in 20 minutes. Through two games, he’s averaging the team’s second-most points (11.5) on the fifth-most shot attempts (6.5). That’s the type of efficiency UNLV coach Dave Rice would like to see when the Rebels tip off at 7 p.m. against a dangerous Omaha team.

“He plays on attack,” Rice said. “He’s aggressive, he’s confident and he’s done a very good job in practice.”

UNLV may have its hands full against another team with a lot of experience playing together. The Mavericks return four starters, including the Summit League’s top returning scorer in guard Justin Simmons. All told, Omaha brings back 84 percent of its offensive production from a team that led the nation in possessions per game.

So far this year, the Mavericks (2-1) have won at Northern Illinois, suffered a narrow defeat at Iowa and crushed UMKC. That Iowa game, an eight-point loss, is notable because Omaha attempted only 16 free throws compared with the Hawkeyes’ 49. That worked out to a 27-point difference.

“They would have won that game,” Rice said of an even free throw situation.

While Kendall Smith’s addition to the starting lineup could be a good thing, it’s notable that the Rebels will use their third different starting lineup in the first three games. Joining Kendall Smith will be Kevin Olekaibe, Bryce Dejean-Jones, Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch.

Olekaibe, who’s leading the team with 14.5 points per game, gets the nod over junior Jelan Kendrick. Rice said part of that was to get more shooters on the court because the Rebels expect to see at least some zone defense.

The Mavericks generally play man-to-man, but once again this season the Rebels will see a lot of zone defense until they prove they can beat it. That’s been a problem each year under Rice, and just like the past two years, a big part of the issue is not being able to get the ball inside.

“When we got paint touches we were very successful,” Rice said.

A lot of the responsibility for getting the ball inside Friday will fall on Kendall Smith. He’s surpassed early expectations, but most of that has come as a shooting guard, not running the offense.

One of his attributes coming into the program was being able to score or distribute, depending on what the team needed. And early in his career at UNLV he’s shown an ability to play hard even when others look like they’re at half-speed in a lopsided loss.

“Whether we were up 20 or down 20, I was going in playing hard,” Kendall Smith said. “Whatever my team needs to win.”

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

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