UNLV basketball:

Rebels hit the road aiming to overcome struggles in back-to-back losses

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV guard Bryce Dejan Jones expresses his frustrations late in their game against UNR Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014 at the Thomas & Mack Center. Reno upset UNLV 74-71.

Less than 24 hours after losing to UNR, one by one the Rebels walked into the upstairs lounge area at the Mendenhall Center and sat down with the goal of getting everything out in the open. Waiting for them was UNLV coach Dave Rice, who chose to hold the meetings in Mendenhall instead of his office so that he and his players could have a discussion without it feeling like a lecture.

“I didn’t want them to feel like they were going to the principal’s office, so to speak,” Rice said. “I wanted them to talk freely and tell me what they thought, to tell me how they thought they could help fix it and how they thought I could help fix it.”

Those meetings were held in hopes of getting UNLV back on the right page heading into the toughest two-game road trip of the season. The Rebels (10-6, 1-2) play at New Mexico (12-3, 3-0) on Wednesday night and then on Saturday travel to No. 10 San Diego State. Both of those games will air on CBS Sports Network.

Rice said he meets with players individually throughout the season but this was the first time in his UNLV tenure that he’s scheduled a full day of sit-downs with the entire team. Rice didn’t reveal much of what was said, only offering that every player said the locker room chemistry is good.

“We need to carry that over to the court,” Rice said.

There’s been a lot of searching and questioning in the wake of UNLV’s second two-game losing streak at home this season. As strange as it seems considering Rice’s first two seasons away from the Thomas & Mack Center, getting out of town seems to be exactly what the Rebels need right now.

This season they’re 2-1 outside of Las Vegas, and the one loss was a five-point defeat at undefeated Arizona. It’s not a large sample size and the game at Southern Utah featured a pro-UNLV crowd, but the Rebels are hoping they can recapture the defensive intensity they played with in those games and for most of their recent winning streak.

“That’s the reason we got our seven-game winning streak,” guard Bryce Dejean-Jones said of the defensive end, “and that’s the reason we’re either going to keep winning or keep losing.”

In the past two games, UNLV’s defense has allowed opponents to shoot 52.5 percent inside the 3-point line. In the two games prior, that number was 37.7 percent. Even though teams are getting blocked basically the same number of times, Air Force and UNR found ways to finish at the rim much better than Cal State Fullerton and Fresno State.

A lot of that probably has to do with help defense. When teams attack Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith, their success rate appears to be about the same. However, the Falcons and Wolf Pack did a great job with backdoor cuts and reversing the ball to create driving opportunities before UNLV was able to recover.

Those are the types of things Smith said the Rebels have been working on the past week. After the UNR game, Rice talked about going back to training camp, and according to the players, that’s entailed a lot of fundamental work on defense. From guarding position to proper position on the court, the Rebels have been running through it all in hopes of eliminating the easy baskets that have felled them.

The timing of this trip may actually be perfect for UNLV. The Rebels have had a week to regroup and recover after losses that pin their backs against the wall. Meanwhile, New Mexico is back home after a shaky road trip.

The Lobos needed overtime to win at Wyoming and then squeaked by at Mountain West bottom feeder San Jose State. That wraps up an uninspiring month of games for the preseason league favorite. The Lobos’ three league victories are by a combined 14 points, and from the outside it looks like a loss is about to catch up to them.

Can UNLV be the team to hand it to them? “Must-win” is a silly term for any non-elimination game, but the Rebels certainly feel the importance of this one. With the trip to Viejas Arena up next and then a home game against Utah State after that, things could truly unravel very quickly if UNLV isn’t careful.

The Rebels say they feel refreshed. Rice said he holds himself accountable for UNLV's failings and players said the same of themselves. They said they’re ready, and that everyone has bought in. That’s probably part of what Rice and the players discussed upstairs at Mendenhall.

“The key for our season, and the key for any team, is when the only agenda for everyone on the team, from coaches and players to support staff, is to try to win the basketball game,” Rice said. “And if we’re not all on the same page on every possession, we might not win.”

Now it’s time to see if they can put that into action.

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

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