UNLV basketball:

Rebels in unusual role as home underdog against Arizona State

UNLV hasn’t been an underdog at home since 2009, when it upset Louisville. The Rebels will look for another upset tonight at 7

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV guard Bryce Dejean Jones reacts after dunking on Omaha during their game Friday, Nov. 15, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

If last week’s lopsided loss and narrow victory were any indication, it could be a long season for UNLV basketball. Or at least a long climb back up to the position the Rebels held for the past few years, when every home game was an expected victory.

There’s at least one large contingent that doesn’t expect the Rebels to win at home tonight: sports books. UNLV (2-1) will be a home underdog for the first time since 2009 when it tips off against Arizona State (3-0) in the Thomas & Mack Center. The game airs at 7 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.

The Rebels were plus-3.5 at one local sports book Monday night and many offshore sites had the game at 4. The last time UNLV got points for a regular season game in the Mack it was a 2.5-point underdog against then-No. 16 Louisville early in the 2009-10 season, according to Covers.com. The Rebels pulled the upset against a Cardinal team featuring then-freshman point guard Peyton Siva.

While the Sun Devils aren’t as nationally relevant as that Louisville squad, they do have their own play-making guard in sophomore Jahii Carson.

“Carson’s an All-American player who’s going to be an NBA Draft pick this year,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.

Carson averaged 18.5 points and 5.1 assists per game last season. Through three games those numbers are nearly identical (18.7 and 5) and he’s got a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

A Mesa, Ariz., native, Carson and UNLV’s Bryce Dejean-Jones are friends. The Rebels’ junior guard said the two go back to youth basketball and have enjoyed watching each other rise to this level. While some call Carson one of the fastest guards in the country, Dejean-Jones didn’t feel the need to pile on much more praise.

“He’s a great player but we have to do what we have to do also,” he said.

Dejean-Jones won’t be the primary guy defending Carson, who’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, but he’ll be counted on to help. All of the guards are going to have to be involved to attempt to keep Carson out of the lane, where he excels at drawing fouls against big men or kicking out to open shooters.

Perimeter defense was a major problem for UNLV in its 73-70 victory against Omaha. The Rebels’ guards were getting beat off the dribble and both Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith finished with four fouls — and 11 combined blocks — because they had to clean up the mess.

The Rebels don’t want to put those guys in foul trouble, although they will try to do the exact same thing to Sun Devils big man Jordan Bachynski. The 7-2 senior center is a shot-blocking machine just like Birch, and like his fellow Canadian big man Bachynski is also susceptible to foul trouble. That could be an even bigger issue this season as some guards adjust to the new foul calls by letting their man go free into the lane rather than risking a cheap foul.

“If the refs are going to call it the way they’ve been calling it, I don’t see why we shouldn’t attack more,” Dejean-Jones said.

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Omaha guard C.J. Carter and UNLV guard Kendall Smith chase a loose ball during their game Friday, Nov. 15, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Rice said he would go with the same starting lineup as Friday, meaning freshman Kendall Smith and senior Kevin Olekaibe are in along with Dejean-Jones, Roscoe Smith and Birch. Junior guard Deville Smith is expected to be a full participant after a sprained MCL threatened to keep him out for at least a week. That he played at all against Omaha (nine minutes) was a surprise, but Rice said Deville Smith is feeling fine and his starting lineup isn’t based on injuries.

“Kendall has earned his starting spot,” Rice said.

The freshman guard is shooting 58.8 percent from the field in nearly 24 minutes per game. Defensively he’s been a slight improvement, but Kendall Smith will start the game guarding Carson in easily the biggest challenge of his young career.

How that matchup goes could determine both the outcome and how sports books view UNLV home games for a while this season.

Win, especially convincingly, and it could get back to status quo. Lose and the Rebels would likely be an underdog again next Tuesday at home against Illinois.

How well the Rebels can play the underdog role at home will go a long way in determining how long this season will feel.

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

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