Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012 | 9 p.m.
- BOX SCORE: UNLV 73, Northern Iowa 59
- BLOG: UNLV downs Northern Iowa, 73-59
- Reggie Theus will help lead tribute of Jerry Tarkanian during Gorman holiday tournament
- Return of the Mack: Rebels back at home to face ‘annoying’ Panthers
- Rebels have plenty to learn from in 62-60 victory at UTEP
- After a year off, Birch excited to make his UNLV debut against UTEP
- All UNLV men's basketball coverage
In past UNLV basketball seasons, the general consensus when talking about the production of the Rebels’ post players typically involved a simple formula: If the Rebels could get a combined double-double of points and rebounds from the two or three players rotating at center, their chances of victory would be enhanced.
If those players — such as last season’s center rotation of Brice Massamba, Carlos Lopez-Sosa and Quintrell Thomas — weren’t an absolute disaster, then the Rebels’ superior athletes on the wing and the backcourt could do the rest.
That’s far from the case this season, which was apparent Wednesday in the Rebels’ 73-59 victory against visiting Northern Iowa.
Northern Iowa was supposed to be a step up in competition, but clearly didn’t play like one of the better programs in the Missouri Valley Conference. In the first half alone, they made just 29-percent of their shots and committed seven turnovers.
Part of the reason for the struggles was the play of UNLV’s big men in controlling the inside on both ends of the court.
Khem Birch and Thomas combined for a respectable 19 points and 11 rebounds, continuing to transform a former weakness into a strength. Instead of winning despite the deficiencies underneath, the balance between capable players on the inside and out make the Rebels downright dangerous.
OK, I’m aware of the obvious when talking about UNLV’s interior play. Power forward Anthony Bennett, who finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds, has been a man amongst boys all season in giving the Rebels a dominant presence on the inside.
He’s the best player on the court every game and plays like it, seemingly scoring at will in using his sheer strength to attack the basket. And he usually draws double team coverage, which makes life easier on the Rebels’ center.
But it is more than Bennett.
The senior Thomas, who is easily the team’s most improved player, has become a valuable piece of the lineup. He grabs rebounds, is solid defensively and is playing with a newfound confidence. The hours he logged during the offseason to upgrade his game have translated into impressive play.
Last year, when Thomas often got lost in the shuffle of the player rotation, he would sulk in disappointment on the bench. This year, he’s engaged in the game and clearly part of what several feel is UNLV’s most talented team in decades.
While Birch, a former McDonald’s All-American, is still getting into game shape after redshirting last year, he’s an immediate upgrade and will combine with Thomas to give the Rebels the best production at center in the Mountain West Conference. Yes, that good.
Birch finished with 11 points, nine rebounds, two steals and one block. He's still rough around the edges in regaining his game strength, but his athleticism is off the charts and his length alters several shots. Mark my words: At this time next year, he'll be averaging a double-double by himself and will be the Rebels' best defender.
Sure, it was just Northern Iowa, but it’s a trend that will likely continue the rest of the season.
Rebels’ second-half struggle a problem. Again: While UNLV won by a comfortable margin, they allowed Northern Iowa to trim its 21-point halftime deficit to 62-49 with about six minutes to play. That raises a red flag because the Rebels almost squandered a double-digit second half lead Monday at UTEP and were lucky to win at the buzzer. A more talented team, such as New Mexico and San Diego State in league play, won’t let the Rebels off so easily. UNLV needs to learn how to finish and can’t afford to allow an inferior opponent to hang around. That’s an ugly recurring theme.