Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014 | 2 a.m.
An amazing comeback only means as much as the next game’s result, because if the Rebels follow up Saturday’s late-game flurry against Boise State with a loss at Colorado State, what did they really accomplish?
At the halfway point of the conference season, UNLV (15-7, 6-3) is alone in fourth place. That’s not as high as it hoped but not as bad as feared when it dropped two of its first three games.
Making a move up the rankings will require winning games like this one at Colorado State (12-10, 3-6), where UNLV has lost the past two meetings. The Rams and Rebels meet at 6 p.m. Las Vegas time in Moby Arena. The game will stream on ESPN3.com.
Although the Rams are in rebuilding mode, they’re still good enough in a few areas to challenge the Rebels.
“They’re a blue-collar team,” junior forward Roscoe Smith said.
Smith had a season-low two rebounds in the victory against Boise State, which featured UNLV overcoming an 11-point deficit in the final 3:29 for a four-point win. That output has narrowed his lead as the nation’s leading rebounder, though Smith still holds a slight edge over San Diego State’s Josh Davis (11.8 to 11.6).
Rebounding could play a large role in the outcome because it’s one of the few things that coach Larry Eustachy’s team does well. The Rams were the best rebounding team in the country last season. This year, with five new starters, they’re in the top 25 in defensive rebounding percentage, according to kenpom.com.
“His teams have always had an identity of defensive rebounding and defensive transition,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “They’re always going to be very tough-minded, and they’re always going to be good rebounders.”
The rest hasn’t gone so well for Colorado State, which has the worst effective field-goal percentage in the Mountain West during conference play. The Rams hit only 30 percent behind the 3-point line and aren’t that much better (42.2 percent) closer to the basket.
Part of that struggle is due to the schedule. Colorado State’s six league losses are sweeps against New Mexico and San Diego State plus road defeats at UNR and Utah State. That’s not an easy slate, but with those games already behind them, the Rams could be looking at this game as an opportunity to make a statement heading into the second half of conference play.
However, it’s obviously a larger game for the Rebels, who still harbor postseason aspirations. If they have any chance of getting there, they will need Smith to perform closer to the double-double machine he’s been than the guy who played only 22 minutes against Boise State.
That was Smith’s second-fewest minutes played of the season, although he was put back into the game for the crucial final 3:29. Rice said Smith’s fewer minutes were partially due to the Broncos’ lineup of perimeter players but also because the guy most likely to yell excitedly while grabbing a rebound with the fervor of a UFC fighter celebrating a victory has only one speed.
“He plays so hard that I do try to keep his minutes down,” Rice said.
Similarly, Bryce Dejean-Jones’ shots are down during this winning streak. He attempted 11 shots (going 6-for-11) over the past two games after attempting at least 10 shots in eight of the previous nine games. The junior guard said he’s never been one to hunt for shots and that the Rebels’ focus on distributing the offense evenly has just resulted in other guys getting opportunities lately.
“It’s working,” he said.
That’s the way Smith said he feels about fewer minutes.
“Yes, I did get pulled early in the Boise State game,” he said, “but as a result we got a win, so it doesn’t really matter.”
Smith was out there when it mattered most, helping the Rebels charge to the finish to avoid a sixth home loss this season. The best way to get a fifth consecutive victory would be to play with the same urgency and execution they had in those final four minutes.
Kendrick under the weather
Rice said junior guard Jelan Kendrick has been battling a cold for about 10 days. He played only 12 minutes against Boise State, and if he's still not feeling well by game time at Colorado State, some of his minutes on the wing could go to freshman guard Kendall Smith.