UNLV basketball:

Rebels must focus on the task at hand before their holiday break

While No. 21 UNLV prepares for Saturday’s game vs. Canisius, it also eyes a potential early return from Mike Moser

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV forward Khem Birch grabs a rebound from UNI center Austin Pehl during their game Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012 at the Thomas & Mack. UNLV won 73-59 to push their record to 10-1.

It’s difficult to say if No. 21 UNLV is at the level it expected to be at heading into the holidays, because those projections included a healthy Mike Moser. Without him the team is not complete, like the Rebels thought they would be once Khem Birch joined the rotation last week.

So while things are still unsettled, there’s no doubt UNLV coach Dave Rice likes what his team has been doing of late. The Rebels are playing inside out, he said, which not only gives them closer looks at the basket, it also creates better shots on the perimeter.

“That’s a huge key for us,” Rice said.

The best example of this offense, and arguably the best this team has played all year, was in the first half of Wednesday’s 72-59 victory against Northern Iowa. The Rebels (10-1) will try to replicate that success at home Saturday at 7 p.m. when they host Canisius (8-2) before the holiday break.

This time of year is always tricky for a college basketball team because the pleasant distractions of going home to see family are just around the corner for several players. There’s also the look-ahead factor for a team that travels to North Carolina a week later.

Rice said that while that’s a concern for every team this time of year, Canisius’ stellar record and most recent victory, a 10-point win at Temple, would resonate with his team.

“That’s where our senior leadership comes into play … and the other thing is we have a lot of guys from the East, and those guys understand how hard it is to go into Temple and win a game by double digits,” Rice said. “There’s a respect factor from our team with what Canisius has done.”

The Golden Griffins love to shoot 3-pointers, but more importantly they’re really good at it. Canisius hits 39.4 percent of its 3-point attempts, which is tied for 20th-best in the country.

That keeps the Rebels’ defensive emphasis on closing out on shooters. UNI’s mini-run in the second half Wednesday came when UNLV let the Panthers get good looks from beyond the arc. Other than that, though, the Rebels played great, especially the inside duo of Anthony Bennett and Birch.

Playing in the second game of his UNLV career, Birch said he was better because he wasn’t nervous about it. That was due in part to getting the first game out of the way and also to playing a game at home. In addition, it didn’t hurt that Bennett dominated the UNI defense, creating more opportunities for Birch.

“They double-team him, then I get the ball, and if they double team me I’ll pass to him,” Birch said. “But I feel I also complement him because he’s more offensive oriented and I’m more defensive oriented. I block a shot and he runs down the court and scores. Everything goes together.”

The on-court cohesion of Birch and Bennett was a preseason storyline the Rebels are finally getting to see develop. However, Moser was always part of that equation, too, because having all three on the court at the same time could be an embarrassment of riches. It could also just be an embarrassment with guys getting in each other’s way.

The point is, no one knows for sure how they will all fit together. If Friday’s practice is any indication, though, the Rebels may not have to wait too long to find out.

Moser was dressed in practice gear for the first time at an open practice since suffering a dislocated right elbow on Dec. 9 at Cal. He still wore a sleeve over his right, shooting arm but Moser took part in all of UNLV’s shooting drills — it was the first time media has seen him really shoot since the injury — and ran through 5-and-0 offensive drills. Clearly the Rebels want to keep Moser involved and up to speed, and for his part Moser is determined to get back on the court as soon as possible.

“We’re pleased with how far he’s progressed,” Rice said. “Now what that means as far as full contact practice or playing in a game, I don’t know, but because of his work ethic he’s definitely ahead of schedule.”

The original prognosis of four weeks pegged Moser to be back around the start of conference season on Jan. 9, so this could just mean he would definitely see the court in that opener at New Mexico. Or maybe he’ll even be ready for UNLV’s home games on Jan. 3 (Chicago State) or Jan. 5 (CSU Bakersfield).

Whenever he does return, only then will the Rebels be able to assess their production and development based on their own expectations, because only then will they be a complete team.

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

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  1. Mike will play against north carolina