UNLV basketball:

Rice wants Rebels to emulate effort, if not production, of nation’s top rebounder

Junior Roscoe Smith enters Tuesday’s game against Illinois with 16.3 rebounds per game. UNLV tips at 7:45 p.m. on CBS Sports Network

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV forward Roscoe Smith tries to get the crowd into their game against Arizona State Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack.

The Rebels’ most energetic player, the one barking at both opponents and teammates from the opening tip to the final buzzer, is also its best, at least by the early-season statistics. UNLV coach Dave Rice would love for some of his players in the rotation to break through once in awhile with similar stats, and for that to happen the Rebels would be wise to first emulate junior forward Roscoe Smith’s demeanor.

“The effort that Roscoe brings is what I want to epitomize our group,” Rice said.

No one on the team outside of Khem Birch is likely to have a similar rebounding night as Roscoe Smith. So far no one in the country can keep up, either.

Roscoe Smith enters Tuesday’s home game against Illinois (5-0) as the top rebounder in the country (16.3 per game), and he leads second-place Julius Randle of Kentucky by nearly three per game. The Rebels (2-2) tip off against the Illini at 7:45 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.

For UNLV to avoid falling below .500, Roscoe Smith may need to continue this rebounding streak. Illinois ranks fourth in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and Rice feels Roscoe Smith is the right kind of guy to deter that.

“He feels like every single rebound, every single loose ball is his,” Rice said. “He takes a lot of pride in it.”

Roscoe Smith often talks about making his presence felt early in games. He does that with an on-court style some could describe as manic, and so far it’s worked very well. Roscoe Smith is leading the team in rebounds and points (14.3 per game) while shooting 56.1 percent from the field.

Birch isn’t nearly as vocal but he’s been almost as productive, averaging 10.3 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. And Birch has flirted with a triple-double in each of the last two games with 16 total blocks. They form a formidable tandem that creates a lot of problems for opposing front courts.

“We’re perfect together,” Roscoe Smith said.

Click to enlarge photo

UNLV forward Roscoe Smith celebrates a play against Arizona State during their game Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack. Arizona State won the game 86-80.

Part of that problem for opponents is that the duo rarely comes off the floor. Both forwards average 30.5 minutes per game, though Rice said he does plan to get reserves like senior Carlos Lopez-Sosa and freshman Jamal Aytes more playing time starting with this game.

“It was hard the other night because every time the ball went up Roscoe got the rebound,” Rice said. “At the same time, those other guys need an opportunity as we move forward.”

Freshman Kendall Smith will continue to get an opportunity for significant playing time at point guard. Kendall Smith started for an injured Deville Smith in the victory against Omaha on Nov. 15, and even though the latter is healthy the freshman doesn’t appear to be giving the spot up anytime soon.

“He’s the starting point guard,” Rice said of Kendall Smith. “He understands what we’re trying to do. He understands we need to get the ball to other people.”

The people he should make sure get the most touches are the big men putting up the big numbers. Roscoe Smith and Birch, who ranks second in the country in blocks per game (5.5), set the tone defensively and Rice wants to make sure they’re rewarded offensively.

The production isn’t going to stay at its current level for the entire season but the Rebels are confident they can count on Roscoe Smith to have a significant presence in every game. Whether he’s on offense or defense, the national champion at UConn is sprinting around the court with confidence and something to say

“That’s what I do,” Roscoe Smith said.

Eventually that’s what Rice would like more Rebels to do, too.

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

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