UNLV basketball:

Rebels’ key players in various states of readiness for conference tournament

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV guard Bryce Dejean Jones pulls in a rebound against Colorado State during the first half of their Mountain West Conference game Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The Rebels’ three leading scorers were in three different states of participation at Monday’s practice. And how each of them progresses from there will determine how far UNLV is able to advance in this week’s Mountain West tournament.

The Rebels begin play as the No. 4 seed at 2:30 p.m. Thursday against No. 5 seed Wyoming. UNLV coach Dave Rice expects everyone to be ready and relatively healthy by then but questions linger.

Junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones returned to practice Monday after a suspension that wasn’t guaranteed to be lifted. Junior forward Roscoe Smith didn’t do any contact drills as he eases back into the rotation after missing two games because of a concussion. And junior forward Khem Birch didn’t practice at all on the same day he was named the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season.

Here’s a quick look at all three players’ current situations:

Dejean-Jones

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UNLV guard Bryce Dejean Jones dribbles through Colorado State guards David Cohn and Jon De Ciman during their Mountain West Conference game Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV won 78-70.

Rice and Dejean-Jones had a meeting Monday morning, after which Rice reinstated the Rebels’ leading scorer. Dejean-Jones had been suspended for conduct detrimental to the team after at least one outburst and a quick exit from the arena last Wednesday night.

“I apologized for my actions and let him know that I’m here trying to be a part of this team and trying to make it up for this tournament,” Dejean-Jones said.

Rice said Dejean-Jones was “contrite” and talked about learning from the experience and moving forward. This was the expected outcome, but Rice had left the situation open-ended, saying that he would revisit the suspension after the weekend.

Dejean-Jones followed the UNLV game from his phone back in Las Vegas and was feeling pretty good about it until the end, when UNR won by four. After his meeting with Rice, Dejean-Jones said that he addressed his teammates.

“We don’t need things like that disrupting the locker room,” he said. “I apologized to them for letting them down and not being there for that game.”

Junior guard Jelan Kendrick played well in Dejean-Jones’ place and could see increased minutes over his conference average (18.1) even with both back in the lineup.

Smith

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UNLV forward Roscoe Smith defends Colorado State guard Dwight Smith during their Mountain West Conference game Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV won 78-70.

While Smith has passed his concussion tests and was cleared to practice, the Rebels still wanted to ease him back into things. Smith practiced in 5-on-0 drills like running through the offense but was held out of all contact drills.

“Hopefully before Thursday I get back out there,” Smith said. “I know I’m playing Thursday for sure.”

Smith crashed head-to-head with an Air Force player a little more than two weeks ago.

“Laying on the ground, I knew something was wrong,” Smith said.

He threw up shortly after getting back to the bench. Smith said he started feeling close to normal two or three days later and has been working his way back ever since.

He’s been able to shoot and run during most of that time so his conditioning shouldn’t be an issue working back in. The main concern is making sure Smith is confident enough that everything’s OK to play the way he did before the injury.

“If he’s not aggressive then it takes a lot away from what he does,” Rice said.

Birch

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UNLV forward Khem Birch leaps in for a dunk against San Diego State during their Mountain West Conference game Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Aztecs won 73-64.

After tying a Mountain West record with 69 blocks in league games, Birch expected to be a first-team all-conference selection. When he found out he was bumped to second team, Birch actually felt more robbed for a different post player.

“I felt that (Ryan) Watkins deserved it more than I did,” he said of Boise State’s double-double big man. “I’m mad that he didn’t get it more than (for myself).”

Birch had time to think about that or anything else he wanted during Rebels practice because he wasn’t on the court. Birch said that in the second half of last Wednesday’s game against San Diego State he felt something weird in his left leg. The team is calling it a hip flexor injury, something he powered through for 15 points and 22 rebounds in Saturday’s loss at UNR. The injury limits Birch’s mobility and causes pain when he raises his left leg.

“I have to jump off my right foot more than the left,” Birch said. “That’s kind of dangerous but I did it against Nevada. I took a big risk there.”

There are strengthening exercises, but one of the best things for the injury is rest. Birch isn’t going to get a ton of that this week. Rice said he hopes to work him back in to maybe a full participant by Wednesday. It all depends on how Birch develops, but there’s no doubt the Rebels need him.

“There’s nobody in the conference that’s playing better than him over the last six games,” Rice said.

And as far as the first-team snub is concerned, Birch said he’s not going to lose any sleep over it. The kid who’s been swatting shots since he started playing basketball at 12 got the award he wanted most.

“As long as I get the Defensive Player I don’t mind anything else. I just wanted that,” he said. “Next year I want a three-peat.”

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

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